Superhero films have been getting increasingly sophisticated and decidedly darker as they become (for better or worse) a full-fledged genre. With Batman Begins, writer/director Christopher Nolan (drawing inspiration from the revisionist Batman comic books by Frank Miller and Jeph Loeb) rebooted the Batman mythos for the big screen, bringing the often lighthearted hero back to the shadows, both figuratively and literally. Now, with the origin story out of the way and the obsessive hero established, Nolan delivers a pulp epic with mythic overtones for the darkest of comic book heroes with The Dark Knight, a pulp tragedy with costumed players and elevated stakes and terrible sacrifices.
In a Gotham City that is part violent gangster thriller of the thirties and forties and part modern metropolis with a rotten foundation under its magnificent cityscape, The Batman (Christian Bale) has cast an aura of fear across the underworld with his vigilante war on crime. He doesn’t trust many people in the corruption-riddled halls of justice, but he takes a chance on the man called Gotham’s White Knight: crusading new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, who brings a hint of grinning arrogance to Dent’s passion).
Shambling into the battle comes The Joker (the late Heath Ledger). With his stringy hair, greasy make-up over the smile carved into his cheeks and garish, street-battered suit, Ledger gives us a volatile psychotic far removed from Jack Nicholson’s showboating exhibitionist in Tim Burton’s “Batman.” He works over his sardonic dialogue in a rumbling wise-guy whine and off-balance patter, his tongue darting in and out like a lizard, his slumping posture so at ease in the chaos of his capers it’s disturbing.
Nolan delivers the expected set pieces for a big screen superhero spectacle, from a sharp bank heist executed (in every sense of the word) with impersonal efficiency by a masked gang to a high-speed ambush in an underground tunnel to a nearly incomprehensible rescue operation where the good guys are working at cross purposes. But The Dark Knight is also a tighter, smarter, more focused film than Batman Begins and Nolan has become a more effective storyteller.
It’s one of the best American movies of the year (I review it on my blog here) and a terrific DVD.
The “Two-Disc Special Edition” includes “Batman Uncovered: Creation of a Scene,” a collection of over an hour of featurettes on the making of key scenes (like blowing up the hospital – for real! – and a real life stunt jump from a skyscraper more thrilling than the finished scene) and versions of the six scenes shot in IMAX format presented in their original aspect ratio…. The Blu-ray edition presents the IMAX version of the film (the IMAX scenes fill the entire widescreen TV frame)…
I review the DVD in my MSN column here.
Also new this week is Olivier Assayas’s breakthrough film Irma Vep in a new “Essential Edition” from Zeitgeist:
French director Olivier Assayas satirizes the French film industry and pays affectionate tribute to the joys and frustrations of filmmaking in his offbeat 1997 comedy. Hong Kong icon Maggie Cheung plays herself in this playful lark about a company trying to remake the silent film classic Les Vampires with an unstable director (aging New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud) and a power struggle within the crew.
My DVD review is here.
Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column:
Flow looks at the decreasing supply of clean drinking water on the planet and the increasing privatization of water rights in Third World countries. It’s a sobering documentary about the struggle between public rights and private interest, and you may think twice about choosing bottled water over the tap.
TV: Lost: The Complete Fourth Season, a remastered edition of I, Claudius and Deadwood: The Complete Series:
David Milch reinvented the western for HBO with this brilliant, unpredictable, utterly original take on the frontier drama, starring Timothy Olyphant as town Marshall Seth Bullock and Ian McShane as the foul-mouthed Brit Al Swearengen, who runs the town on graft and expediency and murder. They become wary allies in the turmoil of political maneuvering and power struggles as the muddy, grubby, dusty frontier camp transforms into a town. It’s the most unglamorous portrait of how the west was won ever put on TV, and it ended before Milch was able to finish telling the story of the real-life town. Milch is rather dour as he discusses the show, the real history and his plans for the unrealized fourth season in a new 22-minute featurette in this collection.
I feature The Wire: The Complete Series as a “DVD of the Week” extra here.
Special Releases: The Quare Fellow with Patrick McGoohan, Lars Von Trier’s stylized thriller Europa (renamed Zentropa for its original US release) and a new special edition of the 1951 science fiction masterpiece The Day The Earth Stood Still:
Michael Rennie is Klaatu, the visitor from space who lands his saucer in Washington D.C. to speak to the world’s leaders and escapes his imprisonment to explore the human incognito, where he befriend single mother Patricia Neal and her innocent son. It’s as much Christ parable as science fiction film (a messenger from the heavens on a mission of peace roams among us and is killed by the people of Earth, rises from the dead for a last sermon, and returns to the heavens), yet its message is delivered less like a sermon than a threat.
Humphrey Bogart proves that looks aren’t everything as the cinema’s most romantic existential hero and Ingrid Bergman is a vision of soft-focus loveliness as the emotionally wounded heroine, and they’re just the tip of this iceberg of Hollywood’s most supreme achievement in character casting: Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Dooley Wilson, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre are among the iconic faces in the exotic crowd…. The winner of 3 Oscars in 1943, including Best Picture, it placed second in the AFI’s poll to find the Best American Film of all time over 50 years later and is still one of the most beloved and popular Hollywood classics of all time. Now it’s been remastered for high definition and the clarity is breathtaking: sharp and textured and incredibly vivid.
The weekly column goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.