A Review of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight”

Terror in the Knight, 22 July 2008
9/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Director Christopher Nolan has tapped into a cultural zeitgeist with his soaring Dark Knight.  No other director has shown so much ambition while working within the context of such an iconic name brand belonging to popular culture. By building upon the excellent framework he set with Batman Begins and adding in the chaos of the Joker (Heath Ledger, legendary) and the tragedy of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, admirable), Nolan, like Hitchcock before him, utilizes a B-level genre flick to tap into our shared cultural fears. Along with his co-writer brother, Jonathan Nolan, the director crafts a tightly wound tapestry that explores our archetypal fears of losing our identity and becoming that which we hate, while tuning into post 9/11 fears of terrorism, cowboy diplomacy, wire-tapping, and vigilante justice run amok.

The cast assembled falls right into place with Nolan’s epic and relentlessly dark vision of our current superhero mythology. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are again perfect in their supporting roles of wisdom and gadget providers, while Gary Oldman receives a surprising amount of screen time and delivers a sterling Oscar-worthy performance as the tormented Commissioner James Gordon. Replacing the dreadful Katie Holmes, Maggie Gyllenhaal is spry and feisty as assistant DA Rachel Dawes, but still seems out of place in her role. Bale is again brooding and effective as Bruce Wayne, though he gets overshadowed by the sly trickster that is Heath Ledger’s Joker. Ledger is everything he’s been hyped up to be. He’s scary good and his insanely nuanced and subversively humorous performance haunts the film while his character terrorizes Gotham with a feverish intensity that is divinely married to Nolan’s amped up tempo of thrills.

The opening moments of the film fall victim to the typical trappings of a sequel as it tries to reintroduce us to the cast regulars while setting the stage for new conflicts. However, once the Joker starts playing his games, Nolan ratchets up the tension to a nightmarish effect that will leave your pulse pounding for two hours. With each terrorist act of the Joker and ensuing catastrophe, Nolan ups the ante, resulting in a film that is enormously entertaining while also making the obvious bloated runtime seem oppressive and nerve-wracking…almost as if the film is a terrorist attack against the audience…

…and maybe that’s the point. With the opening camera swoop between skyscrapers zeroing in on a single window taken straight from Hitchcock’s opening shot from Psycho, Nolan tells the audience what they are in store for. Two more images, along with Ledger’s ghastly scarred and make-up covered visage, seep into the viewer’s subconscious. The first is after a building is exploded we see an image of firefighters spraying water over the scalding steel left behind that is eerily reminiscent of scenes from Ground Zero. The second is after a hospital is demolished, an image of the building’s carcass on the television seems taken straight from the Oklahoma City Bombing. As we watch the harrowing Joker-less climax involving Batman, Dent, and Gordon, and knowing in the back of our minds what became of Ledger in real life, we realize that terrorism can not only come from without, but from within. Sometimes we are our own worst victims.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0468569/usercomments-1186

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Check out my review of the original Batman Begins:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0372784/usercomments-501

A Review of Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone”

Who knew that behind the camera Ben Affleck would be able to deliver such an audacious and wickedly depressing piece of Dickensian subversion?  Against all odds, his debut as a director is on par with Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter and Robert Redford’s Ordinary People.

Masterfully Crafted Descent into White Trash Hell, 29 October 2007
9/10
Author: David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

In some ways, “Gone Baby Gone” plays like a horror film. It depicts a seedy world full of drug dealers, murderers, corrupt cops, pedophiles, child killers, and down-on-their-luck Bostonians trapped in an urbanized “white trash” hell where the two African-American characters, a Haitian drug lord and a noble police chief (Morgan Freeman), wield the most power from opposite sides of the law. Director Affleck showers his hometown with humanistic shots of everyday people milling about, seemingly minding their own business, while their world decays and rots around them. The socio-political subtexts of “Gone Baby Gone” tick quietly like a time-bomb underneath the surface of an otherwise rote crime flick about the race to find a missing four year-old girl. I imagine this deep, dark, and morally questionable under-pinning is what has kept mainstream audiences from connecting with the film while critics have hailed it as a masterpiece.

Adapted from a Dennis Lehane novel (author of the similarly themed and depressing “Mystic River”), “Gone Baby Gone” is masterfully crafted from the opening shot to the closing scene. Ben Affleck proves to be a far better talent behind the screen than in front of it, and while the casting of his younger brother in the lead role may seem like nepotism, Casey Affleck gives a richly complex performance as the private eye who uncovers the truth behind the kidnapping of the little girl. The dialog, strung poetically with grim and vulgar Bostonian street-talk, reminded me of “Good Will Hunting.” With Ben Affleck credited as a co-screenwriter here, this film disproves the popular myth that Matt Damon (or an unnamed third party) was the primary force behind their Oscar-winning screenplay for “Good Will Hunting.”

Like the best of the actors-turned-directors (Robert Redford, or “Mystic River” maestro Clint Eastwood), Ben Affleck is able to get his cast to deliver amazingly rich performances oozing with pathos. Ed Harris, who sometimes over-acts in one-note fashion, is a powerhouse as the lead officer on the case and delivers quite possibly the best performance of his career; his character’s seething rage and fractured view of justice will leave you literally shaking. Amy Ryan, as the strung-out mother of the girl, delivers the type of pitch-perfect portrayal that the Supporting Actress Oscar was tailor made for. Casey Affleck, following his great turn in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” shows that he is an actor to be reckoned with, raw and emotive, and equal or superior in many ways to contemporaries like Ryan Gosling. Older brother Ben is such an actor’s director, he even manages to deliver a heartbreaking scene towards the end where Michelle Monaghan (in the otherwise thankless role of girlfriend and partner to the male lead) displays a range you didn’t see coming.

For the acting, for the dialog, for the intricately complex and devastating crime drama that unfolds, and yes, for the directing, “Gone Baby Gone,” as depressing a piece of subversion as it is, ranks as one of the year’s very best.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:

http://imdb.com/title/tt0452623/usercomments-54

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Check out my reviews of past crime thrillers set in Boston:

The Departed:  http://imdb.com/title/tt0407887/usercomments-359

Mystic River:  http://imdb.com/title/tt0327056/usercomments-222