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Alexandra DuPont Takes A Break From Her Own Ongoing Superheroics To Appraise THE DARK KNIGHT!!

I am – Hercules!!
Alexandra DuPont – physician, scientist, model, heiress, funnybook enthusiast, rock musician, one-time movie exec and former congressman’s wife – occasionally stumbles upon a project she feels compelled to examine for Ain’t It Cool News. The latest Batman movie would appear to fit the bill! Here’s Lexi:

'The Dark Knight': FAQ by Alexandra DuPont

Will you, like nearly every other AICN reviewer, open your "Dark Knight" write-up with some kind of masochistic superlative about how the movie abused you? I'm afraid so. It really is that ambitious and well-made. As we've been saying in our opening sentences, "The Dark Knight" is huge, propulsive, epic, knocks you flat on your fanny and kisses your mom and drinks all your bourbon and punches you in the taint, etc. I haven't been this overwhelmed by a genre film's scope since I snuck into a midnight "Fellowship of the Ring" preview screening for theater employees back in 2001, having no idea what to expect. You could easily re-title the movie "City of Gotham." It felt to me like Batman was just one character -- maybe even a supporting character -- in a vast story about a monumentally fucked-up city. It's an ensemble crime drama, and the parallels to "Heat" are blatant: A master criminal and a master detective (the latter with a troubled personal life) embark on a collision course. As in "Heat," detective and criminal even sit down at a table and chat midway through the film. And as in "Heat," the characters surrounding and supporting the two leads get more screen time than you'd expect. In fact, "Dark Knight" spends so much time with so many large and small characters, it sometimes feels like one of those phone-book-thick novels where characters from all strata of society tragically collide. (I've been jokingly calling it "James Michener's Gotham," though of course Frank Miller did the multiple-characters urban-tapestry thing in "The Dark Knight Returns.") Gotham is the object of everyone's affections. And the love is largely unrequited. But what really interests me about "The Dark Knight" is what co-writer/director Christopher Nolan doesn't do. This may be the first superhero sequel that's less outlandish, gadget-heavy and effects-choked than its predecessor. When "Batman Begins" came out, many of us praised it as a crime drama that happened to feature a guy in a bat costume. But that praise was partially in comparison to the Schumacher nipple-disco that had come before. Yes, in "Begins" Bruce Wayne fights gangsters and police corruption (and choppy action editing). But he was also dealing with ninjas and an ancient secret society and Liam Neeson with two names and a Van Dyke beard and the thespian skills of glassy-eyed Katie Holmes as a little girl trick-or-treating in an assistant-DA costume. Also, there was that CGI elevated train and the CGI hallucinations and the sonar-guided bats and that dopey conspiracy involving corporate malfeasance, poisoned water, and a gun that microwaved that water into steam (unless that water happened to reside in a human body). You could almost feel Nolan fighting for his gritty urban Batman against a riptide of studio notes. "The Dark Knight" has none of that. This time, you don't feel Nolan struggling to re-invent anything (not even the language of cinema; this is the first time, unless I'm mistaken, that Nolan has made a movie that isn't structured like a magic trick). The movie is a surprisingly pure writer/director vision, and that vision is ninja-free, with a lot less CGI. When Nolan shows us cityscapes in this movie, they're not fancy desktop-generated panoramas where all the dirtbags are conveniently confined to an island ghetto called "The Narrows" (which is never mentioned in the sequel, near as I can recall); here, the cityscapes are real helicopter shots of Chicago and Hong Kong, captured with a real IMAX camera. And the villains this time around are very human monsters -- gangsters and psychopaths and good men driven mad -- who use real guns, knives and bombs. Some of the villains scare you, some of them make you sad, and some of them are actually the nominal heroes of the story, or at least have good intentions that get seriously corrupted. Nobody gets out clean in this flick. There will be spoilers from here on out.

What's the story? It's a tragedy about three men who conspire to clean up a city, how they fail, and how its wrecks them all in different ways. It's also a 9/11 movie, and a damned good one. The title perfectly reflects the content. The movie starts out with the idea that maybe Batman's coasting a little. He takes the Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy) into custody with ease, even pausing to round up some copycat Bat-vigilantes in the process (a nice idea from Miller's comics that I hope Nolan develops in the next sequel). But then Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) decide to back white-knight DA Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Harvey has a plan to honestly bring down Gotham's mobsters using RICO laws. For a while, it works. Foreshadowing the awful compromises to come, Batman helps Dent by bending the rules: In one set piece, the Caped Crusader travels to Hong Kong to illegally extradite a mob accountant (Chin Han) using explosives, skyhooks and some elaborate cell-phone sonar surveillance technology developed by Wayne Enterprises engineer Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman). But their ends-justify-the-means approach is working. The mob's running scared. And then the mob bosses are approached by The Joker (Heath Ledger) -- a terrorist lunatic with outside-the-box ideas and no history beyond his scars. (My pet theory is that he's a bored, brilliant and homicidally insane trust-fund kid. He comes off as a blend of Alex from "Clockwork Orange," the tennis-whites sadist from "Funny Games" and the original nasty-bastard Joker from his first Detective Comics appearance.) The mob has, to put it mildly, misplaced their trust. The Joker wants to burn down every system -- the law, organized crime, faith, economics -- and he operates like a terrorist, employing assassinations and well-placed bombs and ridiculous demands. He's also great at setting up elaborate booby traps that force people to make horrible moral choices. He thinks pain is hilarious, even when it's inflicted on him. The bureaucrats -- and The Batman -- don't handle his disruption of their plans very well. You know most of this from the trailer. What you don't know is how perfectly, how relentlessly, the movie steamrolls into tragedy. By film's end, pretty much every major character is dead, insane, disfigured and/or morally compromised. And that's just the good guys. If they're breathing, they've made plans to lie to the public and each other, and they're mostly convinced they're doing the right thing. But as Batman scampers into the night, it doesn't feel like justice. It feels like something that's going to blow up in their faces down the line. It feels like failure. And as drama, it's totally fucking delicious.

What's good? 1. Ledger. He's every bit as good as you've heard -- he just completely disappears into a performance that feels like a distortion field of tics and unexpected line readings, without pulling any lame "Clown Prince of Crime" schtick. He does damage with pencils and knives and bombs that will probably make even the most hard-core genre hound cringe a little. (I seriously can't believe this movie is PG-13 after the Joker's "disappearing pencil" trick alone.) Rather than pulling out the thesaurus and trying to out-fellate Peter Travers, I'll just name a few of my favorite Ledger moments: (a) The nervous-but-unflinching look The Joker gives a dissenting mobster after crashing an underground meeting. Ledger looks like he's scared the gangster will wreck a good first impression, but Ledger's also thinking on his feet. It's a really complicated look. (b) The weird shuffling walk Ledger does as he exits a hospital he's trying to blow up. (c) The way Ledger says "Hello, Harvey" in the same hospital. (d) The blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of Ledger without makeup during an assassination attempt at a police funeral. It's the only time you see his naked eyes. If I thought the Academy Awards were anything other than a pointless popularity contest celebrating money and bombast and an industry's vain perception of its own importance, I'd speculate about Ledger's Oscar chances here. 2. Eckhart. The movie's biggest surprise is that Harvey Dent is kind of awesome, and what happens to him breaks your heart. He's smart, fearless, and forthright enough to completely and believably steal Rachel Dawes' (Maggie Gyllenhaal's) heart from Bruce Wayne. After he's disfigured and goes on a murderous rampage, you mostly know exactly why he's doing it -- and, most of the time, you're totally rooting for him to get "heads" on the coin flip so he can pump lead into the cowards who betrayed him. Eckhart mostly chooses to underplay his agony as Two-Face -- even the sinewy CGI Visible Man side looks fairly calm most of the time. It's as strange a choice, in its way, as anything Ledger does. "The Dark Knight" is filled with dread, and most of it gathers around Harvey. 3. Gyllenhaal. Rachel Dawes is still a thankless role, but Maggie Gyllenhaal actually has some light behind her eyes that isn't generated by the power of Xenu. When she scolds Bruce Wayne, you feel it in a way you never did with Mrs. Cruise. 4. The general stripping-out of gadgets and needless special effects. Even the cell-phone-sonar doohickey -- probably the only element of the movie that feels kind of tacked-on, like Nolan got a studio note to "add a gadget" -- is used to explore the dangers of post-9/11 surveillance. 5. I loved, loved, loved the way the movie respected cops and classic cop cinema. I love that the Gotham PD rank-and-file aren't just stooges or foils for Batman; you get to know several of them. There's one truly great action sequence in the movie -- a long assault on a SWAT convoy by the Joker from the back of a semi truck -- and Nolan constantly checks in with the bit-part SWAT guys and lets them react intelligently and sardonically to the chaos. It adds to the texture of the movie, to the sense of a city responding together (and not always well) to the mounting chaos. In addition to the blatant nods to "Heat," the movie image-checks classic cop cinema. Does Bruce Wayne weave through traffic while racing against time under the L-train tracks? He does. 6. The score. Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard employ that same pulsing-dread motif they did in "Begins" -- but they also create themes for the Joker and Two-Face that are basically low-level distortion screeches. I always think of their "Batman" scores as the heartbeat of Gotham as much as anything else, and Gotham is apparently very, very disturbed. 7. The IMAX cinematography. Nolan shot cityscapes and action sequences in IMAX, and it's overwhelming. See this movie on an IMAX screen if you can. (Related story: As we stumbled out into a mall after my screening, a friend said, "It's weird to leave a movie where everything felt so real and enter a real world where everything feels so fake." Exactly.)

What's not so good? 1. I believed Harvey's turn to vengeance against corrupt cops and mobsters -- but his final turns against Batman and Gordon's family felt rushed and chatty to me. There's apparently a three-hour cut of this film floating in Nolan's editing bay, and I'm wondering how much more of Two-Face's final rampage is on it. 2. Nolan frankly isn't that great at frenetic action choreography and editing -- though I was never confused like certain older writers, who seem in their dotage to be overly startled by color and movement. (I also think this is partly behind the way-too-bloodthirsty critical piranha-feed on "Speed Racer," but maybe that's just me.) Editing-wise, things only really get dicey in the final action sequence -- when Nolan rapid-cuts between multiple floors of a skyscraper, SWAT guys, hostages, Batman, dogs, and annoying CGI sonar-vision footage that might as well have been swiped from "Daredevil." It's a testament to Nolan's larger command of the drama that I was happy to sort through it all. 3. The movie's so vast, Christian Bale barely gets a chance to register. More energy is devoted to the problems Batman creates than is devoted to Batman himself. Also, Bale's super-affected Batman voice is fine when he's terrorizing criminals; it's maybe less fine when he's using it during long philosophical discussions with Harvey and Gordon. (Also, some people just plain aren't going to dig those long philosophical discussions.) 4. There are logical slips that will probably become fairly blatant on repeat viewings. Here are two: Dent leaves no stain on his pillow when his face is half-gristle, and the Joker is left alone in a penthouse with several terrified guests after Batman jumps out a window after Rachel, but we never find out what happens to those guests. 5. Finally, this isn't really a problem, but more of a concern: "The Dark Knight" paints itself into such a bleak, high-stakes dramatic corner, I have absolutely no idea how Nolan can top himself in the next film. What villains are left to introduce? The Riddler? Selina Kyle? The Penguin? The Mutant Gang? As characters, none of them feel up to the challenge of helping Nolan escalate what he's done here -- which is to make a superhero film that, as J.V. Last put it, "you can't consider ... by the normal metrics of superhero movies. It aspires to, and achieves, the actual level of film. This is Chinatown and Heat rolled into one." Warmest, Alexandra DuPont

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