PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Dark Knight (A)
U.S.; Christopher Nolan, 2008, Warner Bros.
As long as we're living in an age where the biggest-movie budget loot tends to be sunk into adaptations of Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk, rather than, say, War and Peace, Remembrance of Things Past, Henderson the Rain King or V, The Dark Knight is the kind of movie we should be happy enough to get: fast, hip, expensively mounted, beautifully crafted and hell on wheels to look at.
Director-co-writer Christopher Nolan and his visual wizards ingeniously turn Chicago into a film noir bat-cave inferno, the Gotham City of your best bad dreams. The script is smart, and the movie has three deeper-than-usual antagonists, all very well played: stalwart bat-hero Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale), crazed psycho-killer the Joker (Heath Ledger) and tormented hero/villain Harvey Dent, a.k.a. Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart).
All these guys come out of the Bob Kane-created comic -- and so does wry butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine), dogged Lieutenant soon-to-be Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), and others. Nolan takes these simple, archetypal characters and plunges them deep into a psychological horror story. He pumps up the action, juices up the story and lights a fire under his actors. Whether encased in those armor-like bat clothes or draped in polyester Joker-suits (the Joker's style is a mixture of Gucci and grunge), they respond, as does most of the rest of the cast, with sometimes harrowing intensity.
Heroine/law-woman Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) -- beloved of Bruce yet stolen by straight-arrow Harvey is pretty far from the usual comic book sex fantasy; she's more like a feminist TV commentator and BWOC. Her tragic B.F. Harvey, the district attorney who is rewarded with a half-ruined face, is a man torn between good and evil, stretched on the rack of the film's Manichean morality. The Joker is the ultimate anarchist, a clown trying to tear the world apart, spitting off wisecracks as if to an audience of evil-minded cabaret drunks. As for Batman himself, he's the tortured, orphaned child of privilege, possessed of enormous (inherited) wealth, bent on revenge against the bad -- but not reckoning on the way heroes obsessed with villains can take on the traits of their prey.
The movie begins with close to its best scene: an ingeniously choreographed bank robbery, full of whiplash acting and wicked jokes (there's a priceless visual punch line when a school bus crashes through the bank wall), staged by the Joker's clownface-masked minions, a "Reservoir Dumbos"-style gang who keep killing each other as the plot races along, until only one (guess who?) is left.
The Dark Knight is full of brilliantly staged action set-pieces -- though they never top that one -- and they're made even more brilliant by the movie's use of IMAX cameras and huge screen technology. We get furious bat cycle/car chases, tense ferry-bomb standoffs and lots of action up among the skyscrapers, given in scary detail and depth. All of this leads to a bitter, tortured climax whose secrets we'll keep. Suffice it to say that Nolan, who made a modern neo-noir classic with the reverse-amnesia thriller Memento, is still making noirs and that Kane's Batman saga, which started off thriving on early noir and German expressionist silent movies, is ideal material for him.
Kane's Batman comic art got much of its look and feel from movies like German émigré Paul Leni's The Cat and the Canary, and the Joker himself was modeled on Conrad Veidt's carved smiley-face disfigured hero in Leni's film of Victor Hugo's The Man Who Laughs. Ledger makes a very different laugher than Veidt, the tall, slender movie fiend who played the deadly somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the evil and lordly Major Strasser in Casablanca. Ledger is hip and feline and bitterly funny, and, in some ways, like Jack Nicholson's Joker for Tim Burton, he's the real hero of this movie.
Batman, any Batman, is sometimes too uptight, too pretty and too damned rich to really empathize with. We probably respond more to his father figures, Alfred and Wayne Enterprises CEO Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman).
The Joker -- whose look was partly inspired by punk rockers Johnny Rotten and Iggy Pop -- is someone whom the audience can get slightly more conformable with. Ledger's version has the original Joker's clown-white face and perpetual red-lipped, rip-faced grin, as well as his purple and green outfit. But it's a revisionist look that suggests Calvin Klein ads and Euro-chic.
He's Bruce's id, exploding. Ledger plays the part as if he knows he's got the move stolen from his first scene on, and wants to go further, twist up the audience reactions, make us share his mean vision of things. He mutters to the audience (or himself) the way comedians like W.C. Fields and Groucho used to -- and he serves a similar subversive function.
Harvey Dent has been given a perfect comic book look, split in half, Eckhart's DA shows a schizophrenic face. Just as Batman, like Zorro, has no face; he's the fop who runs into a masked avenger. There's a joke in our reactions to this: For many in the audience (especially political conservatives), Bruce Wayne is far more their ideal fantasy figure than the Bat-Guy. He's the playboy "hero" of money and hedonism they want to be, while Batman is stuck with this weird suit and moral albatross -- a law-and-order liberal, obsessed with helping people -- with a conscience they'd rather shuck off or "outgrow."
That's why Batman was one comic book superhero who definitely captured the imagination of the eternal 12-year-olds who loved him, and who still, in some ways, make up a lot of the audience for The Dark Knight. He was a creature of the night who really was a force for good, a caped crime-buster who was also a twisted Christ symbol. The comic stories always established a menace, then hurled Batman (and later Robin) at them. The movie does the same. But this time, it's the menace that we dig most -- not just because of Ledger's early death, or his earlier bravery in taking on Brokeback Mountain and another Gyllenhaal, but because he creates a true nightmare being, someone comfortable with chaos.
You can tell there was a lot of money well-spent on The Dark Knight, and it's even stimulating when the movie finishes on a dark or melancholy note -- though of course the series-side precedent for that is The Empire Strikes Back. It's a hellacious action nightmare thriller, a noir for our time.
And Ledger's swan song brings down the house. That's more than enough.
Still Life (A)
China; Jia Zhang-ke, 2006, New Yorker
China's Jia Zhang-ke, the director of Platform, The World and this Venice Golden Lion winner about the human flotsam around the brand-new Three Gorges Dams on the Yangtze River, is one of the great contemporary movie realists -- and the fact that his movies are popular only with aficionados both here and in China, is a somewhat sad commentary on mass tastes.
But at least, Jia has an audience. Like his other films, Still Life (more homily called Good Folks on the Three Gorges in China) is about working-class people and peasants circa 2006 who are being displaced by China's massive dam project, then soon scheduled to flood the banks of the Yangtze, submerging houses and whole villages. This Wild River-like situation is thrown into relief by two searching main characters, a sad husband (Han Sanming) seeking his wife, and a smart young wife (Zhao Tao) seeking her husband -- both after separations of years.
It's a melancholy story in many ways, but Jia never sinks into sentimentality or bathos. He shows us the way people really live, play and suffer. The movie is brilliantly shot in Jia's customary style of deep focus long shots and long takes, with improvised acting, and the DVD also contains a Jia interview and an accompanying Jia-directed documentary, also shot at Three Gorges: Dong, about a journey there by Jia's friend, painter Liu Xiaodong. I said Still Life was for aficionados, and it is, but it's also for people with first-rate large-screen TV systems -- the better to appreciate Jia's magnificent shots of the Yangtze and surrounding countryside. (In Chinese, with English subtitles.)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (A)
U.S.; Frank Capra, 1938, Sony
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington director Frank Capra was a Republican; screenwriter Sidney Buchman had flirted with Communism. But they made beautiful political/comic music together in this classic political comedy-drama about a nave young youth leader (and community organizer) named Jefferson Smith (perfectly played by the young Jimmy Stewart), who's appointed to a vacant U.S. Senate seat and suddenly finds himself surrounded by typical Washington D.C. opportunism and corruption. The supporting cast is terrific, Capra-corn personified: Jean Arthur, Thomas Mitchell, Edward Arnold, Claude Rains and Harry Carey Jr.
Filibuster has become a dirty word these days, thanks to the Republican Party. But there's no more moving filibuster in movies than Jeff's fearless, vocal-cord-shredding last stand in this movie. When Richard Shelby and his GOP stalwarts threaten another filibuster themselves, which of course they never really stage, maybe they should be required to actually put one on for a week or so -- endlessly reading aloud the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address and other patriotic documents -- including, of course, Jeff Smith/Jimmy Stewart's impassioned last speech here.
BOX SET PICK OF THE WEEK
Great Directors (A)
France/Italy/Germany/Japan/Russia; various directors, 1957-81, Kino
This five-disc set offers five modern masterpieces by great international cineastes of the post-war era.
Il Grido (A)
Italy; Michelangelo Antonioni, 1957
Antonioni's poetry of alienation was rarely more powerfully expressed than in this mesmerizing road film about a heartbroken mechanic's (Steve Cochran) lonely flight through lust and the landscapes of the Po Valley region. (In Italian, with English subtitles.)
Les Bonnes Femmes (A)
France; Claude Chabrol, 1960
Chabrol's neglected New Wave classic about the dark side of romance, as lived or witnessed by four beautiful French shop girls (Stephane Audran, Bernadette Lafont, Clotilde Joano, Lucile Saint-Simon). Written by Chabrol and Paul Gegauff. (In French, with English subtitles.)
The Mirror (A)
U.S.S.R.; Andrei Tarkovsky, 1974
Tarkovsky's mystical autobiographical classis about growing up, tyranny, esthetics, and his mother and father. With Margarita Terekhova. (In Russian, with English subtitles.)
Dersu Uzala (A)
Japan/U.S.S.R.; Akira Kurosawa, 1975
Kurosawa's Oscar-winning masterpiece, stunningly shot in the Siberian wilderness, about a staunch Mongol hunter (Maxim Munzuk). From Vladimir Arsenyev's novel: a heart-breaker. (In Russian, with English subtitles.)
Circle of Deceit (A)
Germany/France; Volker Schlondorff, 1981
War, romance and journalism in battle-ravaged Beirut. With Bruno Ganz, Hanna Schygulla, Jerzy Skolimowski and Margarethe von Trotta. (In German, with English subtitles.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
Horton Hears a Who! (B+)
U.S.; Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, 2008, Fox
My favorite cartoon elephant except for Dumbo meets the tiny inhabitants of Dr. Seuss' Whoville in Horton Hears a Who!, and proves again that he meant what he said and he said what he meant: that "an elephant's faithful, one hundred percent." Good stuff, especially for kids, but I'd still like to see the movies take another crack at Horton Hatches the Egg, which was a '40s Looney Tune. With Jim Carrey, Steve Carrell (as the mayor) and Carol Burnett (as the kangaroo).