Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Dark Knight Trilogy

Tonight at midnight, director Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy comes to an end with the release of The Dark Knight Rises. I'll be there at the midnight show, waiting to see how it all ends, but before that, I'm going to review the first two chapters in Nolan's series, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

Batman Begins - Let's go back a few decades. After Tim Burton released the follow-up to 1989's Batman with Batman Returns, Warner Bros demoted Burton to a producing role due to the dark and violent nature of the 1992 sequel, in hopes to make the Caped Crusader more accessible to mainstream viewers (see: more family friendly). Joel Schumacher was hired as director and already, there was issues with the greenlit sequel. First, Schumacher wanted to adapt Frank Miller's graphic novel of the Batman legend, titled Batman: Year One into a prequel of Bruce Wayne's origins and how he became the costumed vigilante. The studio shot the idea down because they wanted a sequel and because they wanted eight and ten year-old boys watching the movies, along with their parents. Second, Michael Keaton - who played Batman in the first two films, decided not to return for the next installment, claiming he was unhappy with the new direction the series was going. A few days later, Val Kilmer was brought on to play Wayne and his alter ego. Lastly was the in-fighting between the actors and Schumacher; most notably between him and Kilmer. Batman Forever was released in the summer of 1995, and to huge success: Forever made $184 million in North America and $152 million overseas, bringing the total to $336 million globally, surpassing Returns and  was the 2nd highest grossing movie in North America in that year (the highest was Pixar's debut feature, Toy Story). Reviews were mixed, as some critics liked the campy, visual look and feel of Batman's world, while others disliked how the series sold out it's dark, harrowing and haunting nature for something that would be more approachable for younger audiences and their families.

Then came Batman and Robin, the movie that (still) puts a shiver down the spine of every comic book fan, and every movie geek out there, and the movie that i'm certain George Clooney would take back, had he know just how badly he and the rest of the cast would damage the Batman name. I'm going to keep this brief because going into a synopsis of this...thing would drive me mad, so here are the bullet points you need to know:

  • First off, you're probably wondering why I mentioned George Clooney and not Val Kilmer? The beef between Kilmer and returning director Schumacher was so bad that Kilmer refused to return for the fourth installment, with Clooney taking his place.
  • Schumacher wanted to pay homage to the camp value of the 1960's television show starring Adam West as Batman, which explains the casting of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze and those terrible ice puns ("What killed the dinosaurs? The Ice Age!").
  • Warner Bros, basking in the success of Batman Forever, demanded that the filmmakers begin immediately on the sequel, which started August of 1996 and ended January of 1997, two weeks ahead of schedule.
  • The fourth installment was released in June of '97, but to abysmal reviews and a very disappointing box office run (it finished with just under $110 million, due to the negative word of mouth after the first week of it's release).
  • Many people involved, including co-star Chris O' Donnell as Robin and the director himself were apologetic for the movie. Clooney himself vowed that he would never play this character again, and for that, we are all very thankful.
After the Batman and Robin fiasco, the studio had been attempting to reboot the series, but with no success. There was plans for a fifth entry, titled Batman Triumphant, but due to the backlash of the fourth, the project was shelved. Had it been green-lit, Clooney, O'Donnell and Schumacher would have been attached to the project (sure dodged a bullet there). Later on, Warner Bros. made another attempt in 2000 with Batman: Year One. the studio hired Darren Aronofsky to write and direct the reboot based on the graphic novel of the same name by Frank Miller, but just two years later, the studio shelved the project.

This (finally) leads us to Christopher Nolan. In 2003, Warner Bros tried yet again to reboot the franchise and this time, it finally took! Nolan was hired to direct and co-write with David S. Goyer. Their aim was a for a more realistic and darker atmosphere and to take the series down to bare basics: the untold story of Bruce Wayne himself. Nolan wanted the audience to care about Mr. Wayne and his alter-ego, and in 2005, he did just that.

Batman Begins, right from the start, doesn't open with Bruce's alter-ego, fighting crime or watching Gotham at night like a hawk. Nolan wisely catches the young Mr. Wayne (a terrific performance by Christian Bale) in the act of exploring the criminal underworld: what makes him or her tick and why does a criminal commit crimes like theft and/or murder. His journey begins the moment he loses his parents, as they were gunned down by a drifter looking to score some money. His journey takes him far way from the mean, gritty streets of Gotham to a remote location in Asia, where he is brought under the tutelage of Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) and the mysterious League of Shadows, an ancient organization determined to bring about true justice around the world, lead by Ras Al Ghul (Ken Wantanabe). There, Wayne learns how to confront his fear and use it as a weapon to prey on the criminal underworld. Wayne decides to come out of his self-exile and returns to Gotham, a changed man, ready to take on the criminal underworld that has taken over the city. With the assistance of his loyal butler Alfred (a wonderful Michael Cane), the sly hi-tech/gadgets/weapons manufacturer Lucius Fox (a sly Morgan Freeman), the crusading DA assistant and childhood friend Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) and the city's good cop Sargent Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), Bruce becomes The Batman and takes on the head the Falcone crime family (Tom Wilkinson) and Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) a shrink who isn't on the level with Rachel, the law, or his practice.

I have said before in many reviews that character overload usually dooms a movie, and trust me, this film is filled with characters, especially on the villain side. Yet, Nolan gives time for all the players to have their moment in the sun and their onscreen time has weight and it flows within the story. The pacing is just right, allowing characters to come in and out with just the right amount of time and for the story to evolve with them. The set pieces are extraordinary, in particular, the city of Gotham. On the surface, Gotham has the look and feel of a thriving metropolis, but on the inside, the city is rotting and dying. Mobsters, thugs and corrupt bureaucrats take what they want and terrorize the helpless, and no one says a word out of fear. The wealthy and privileged wine and dine and ignore the plights of others, while the rest are left to fend for themselves. It's a world that feels very much like our own, like Nolan is forcing the audience to stare at a mirror image of what we've become.

Probably the film's downside was Katie Holmes as Dawes. I imagine Dawes as a tough, sassy fighter who doesn't scare easy, not the soft-spoken assistant for the city's justice department which Holmes provides. That and the film's third act, which the action sequence with Batman trying to stop the League from poisoning Gotham's water supply basically turns into the standard, yet thrilling race to stop the madman from destroying the city. It's still a nice climax, but it's shorter than I would have liked. Other than those minor complaints, Batman Begins is a dark, compelling and thoroughly satisfying re-imagining of Batman and his quest to save the city from itself. Simply, this is the Batman movie we've been waiting for and deserved to see realized on the big screen......who knew, though, that this reboot was only just the start of what Nolan would deliver?
***1/2 stars out of ****

The Dark Knight - How do you expand upon what was introduced in 2005 with Batman Begins? How does writer/director Christopher Nolan continue Batman's journey in saving Gotham City from itself? The answer lies in a line of dialogue Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) utters at a dinner between playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne (once again played by Bale) and DA assistant Rachel Dawes (now played by Maggie Gyllenhall): "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain." This  statement alone will test Wayne's commitment to being Gotham's watchful protector, and it eventually paints a weary Wayne who wonders if all his efforts are really moving the city toward a better tomorrow. This statement will also test Gotham's new District Attorney as everything he cares about and it will test Jim Gordon (Oldman) and the deals he's willing to make for the greater good. This statement lies at the heart of Nolan's sprawling and epic crime drama/sequel to his Batman trilogy. A criminal mastermind known only as The Joker (Heath Ledger, in his last completed work before his untimely death in 2008) comes into Gotham, just as Batman, Gordon and Dent are on the cusp of delivering a final blow to the Falcone crime family that has long terrorized the city, by hitting them where it hurts: their pocketbooks. At first, this psychotic clown robs from the mob for kicks, but this, as it turns out, was merely done to get their attention. his ultimate goal is anarchy: complete and total anarchy. He kidnaps and kills Gotham's important citizens, such as the Commissioner, a Judge, etc. and blows up hospitals and he hijacks boats for his own amusement.

Behind his trail of death and madness, there is a method and point behind his vile and sadistic nature. The scene where him and Batman square off in a detention facility is as thrilling as any action sequence Nolan conjures up, and that's including where Wayne and CEO Lucius Fox (Freeman) travel to Hong Kong and pick up a key accountant for the mob who holds all their dirty money due to the fact that the city is beyond Dent's jurisdiction, or the chase sequence in Downtown Gotham that's a total showstopper. Despite the action, which is top-notch, The Dark Knight is hunting bigger game. Nolan is out to expand out themes he laid the groundwork in Batman Begins; he's out to show not only the rotting society that we're becoming, but to show to what ends are we willing to take in order to do to save it or, in this case, to stop a lose cannon like the Joker. All of our characters are caught in moral and ethical traps that there are no escape from, and it leaves the audience with questions on whether they did or are doing the right things. All the characters bring their A-game and no performance is wasted. Aaron Eckhart is the unsung hero in this movie, showing his fall from grace as tragic and downright frighting into the lost, revenge-filled monster he succumbs to. Michael Cane is wonderful as Alfred, trying to serve as a father-figure Bruce never really received as a child, and as his faithful advisor on Wayne's journey. I really can't say enough about Christian Bale as Bruce/Batman, other than he is the character we've been waiting to see: a battle-worn man who's nearing his breaking point.

The actor who triumphs in The Dark Knight is, of course, the late Heath Ledger as the Joker. We've seen him in good to terrific roles before (The PatriotMonster's BallA Knight's TaleBrokeback Mountain) but his role as this criminal mastermind is nothing short of astonishing and chilling. His commitment to the role, the way he threw himself into this character - from the voice, to the makeup which made him damn-near unrecognizable, to the bone-chilling cackling laugh - this is a performance that comes around in a blue moon, where an artist leaves everything he has in a performance for all to witness. This is, to me, one of the great performances that I have ever seen in film. The Dark Knight is a movie of the rarest kind: it's a terrific piece of pop entertainment, a haunting and thrilling crime drama that ranks with Scorsese's Mean Streets and Michael Mann's Heat, a thought-provoking social commentary, and a movie that raises every bar - superhero genre, summer film, crime-thriller - and asks every other movie to match it's epic scope. It is simply, a masterpiece.

**** stars out of ****