Sunday, July 27, 2008

Movie Review: "The Dark Knight"

Starring Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Morgan Freeman
Directed by Christopher Nolan

Official Web site

Having been able to successfully relaunch the franchise in 2005 with the stellar “Batman Begins,” director Christopher Nolan’s follow-up, “The Dark Knight,” is one of those rare sequels that is able to top the impressive accomplishments reached by its predecessor. It’s a lengthy, dark journey that is filled with a few surprises, which includes the contemplation of ethical dilemmas. A thinking person’s superhero movie? This sure isn’t your typical brain-dead summer offering that Hollywood tends to favor throwing at audiences.

The script, co-written by Nolan with his brother, Christopher, captures the Caped Crusader (Christian Bale) at a time when crime is down and citizens are feeling safer and more confident than they have in years. Not that it’s all sunshine and happiness for Gotham City, as the criminal element is still a presence in town, albeit a more muted one. Corruption still exists, but devoted, hardworking crime fighters can still be found, such as police Lt. Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart, very good in a tricky role), the fearless and aggressive district attorney.

But when a new morally unbound criminal, called The Joker (Heath Ledger) begins causing trouble for everyone, the carefully built confidence of the city threatens to completely collapse. Batman, Gordon and Dent form an alliance to try and deal with the aftermath of the Joker’s criminal schemes. Yet, as the Joker himself makes known to anyone who will listen, he doesn’t really have a master plan. He’s not served by petty self-interests or a hidden agenda. He just wants to bring chaos to town.

Obviously, a ton has been said and written about the tragic death of Ledger earlier this year, which threatened to become a bigger story than the film itself. But as the movie plays out over its lengthy 152-minute running time, you forget that you’re even watching Ledger on screen. His performance is that transformative and chilling. As good as Jack Nicholson was portraying the Joker in 1989’s “Batman,” you never forgot who you were seeing. But Ledger’s Joker is quite a dark departure from previous incarnations of the character, as he’s played as an obviously intelligent, yet mentally unstable man who probably has some very large skeletons in his closet.

But, in what turns out to be an inspired decision, the movie doesn’t sidetrack into “Joker Begins,” as no back story is provided to the villain. Not much more about him is known at the end of the film than when he first appears on screen. And while he is the most memorable character in the film, the Joker isn’t overused, as Nolan makes sure the entire main cast (a most impressive one) is given moments to shine. Returning is Michael Caine as Alfred, the loyal butler to Bruce Wayne, and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, who heads up Wayne’s business interests (not to mention his ability to create exceptional crimefighting gadgets for Batman). Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over for Katie Holmes to good effect as Rachel Dawes, the assistant DA and love interest for Dent.

As the Joker continues to stay at least one step ahead of his pursuers, characters are forced to make difficult decisions – some with life-or-death consequences. Batman and Dent especially are put through the wringer by the Joker, who delights in seeing heroic people brought down to his level of behavior. He sees the stakes in the battle with Batman as nothing short of Gotham City’s soul.

Much like he did in the previous film, Bale shows a steely determination as Wayne/Batman, while capturing the internal conflict of not knowing who exactly he is in his own heart or the hearts of those he protects. His performance is exactly what it needs to be for the story, but is almost certainly to be overshadowed by the flashier work by Ledger, which will likely garner an Oscar nomination.

The film should also receive award consideration on a number of technical fronts, and might be remembered for some major ones come next year. It’s a credit to Nolan’s ambition that “The Dark Knight” isn’t simply a going-through-the-motions sequel, content to ride on the long cape of its previous superhero tale. This sequel is an adult, and I reiterate adult, examination of two troubled men who have chosen wildly different paths in life. One has accepted who he has become, while the other is maybe still searching.

Grade: A
(Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace.)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Movie Review: "The Savages"

Starring Laura Linney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Bosco, Peter Friedman, Cara Seymour
Directed by Tamara Jenkins

Official Web site

After a standout debut in 1998 with the darkly humorous “Slums of Beverly Hills,” writer-director Tamara Jenkins seemingly disappeared from the Hollywood scene, only to reemerge late last year with the release of “The Savages.” It’s a bit of a shame to have to wait nine years for something this good, but better late than never.

“The Savages” pairs Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney, two of their generation’s finest actors, as unhappy siblings forced to deal with the declining health of their father, Lenny (Philip Bosco). Wendy and Jon Savage both live in New York, far from their father, who lives in Arizona. And with the occasional hints of their crummy childhoods growing up with the short-tempered and foul-mouthed Lenny, their distance from him seems intentional.

But once Lenny starts acting out (in a way I won’t describe here) due to the onset of dementia and his live-in girlfriend passes away, Wendy and Jon are forced to reestablish connections with their father and bring him back to New York. It’s there they look to find a new home for him in an assisted living facility – a pursuit made particularly more difficult for Jon, who can barely hide his dislike for his father.

Aside from their problems with Lenny, Wendy and Jon are hardly happy, well adjusted people themselves. Wendy’s in the midst of an affair with a married man, with no hopes of it ever turning into something more, while Jon is unwilling to marry a longtime Polish girlfriend, even though her deportation to Poland is pending. He even openly weeps about his situation on occasion, yet seems emotionally incapable of dealing with marriage.

While the above description might make it sound like “The Savages” is one seriously downbeat movie, it’s to Jenkins’ credit that there’s plenty of dark humor to be found here too. As she did with “Slums of Beverly Hills,” Jenkins shows the ability to illicit laughter from less than humorous circumstances. Some of the laughs come from the frequent bickering between Wendy and Jon, who pick apart each other’s lives. But despite their arguments, it’s apparent that the two genuinely seem to care for one another. Dealing with an end of life issue with their father forces them to look closer at the direction of their own lives.

Hoffman and Linney (in an Oscar-nominated performance) are both excellent and have a chemistry that makes them very believable as brother and sister. Bosco also has some good moments as the irascible father who’s struggling to cope with the unwanted changes in his life.

The movie, while a fictional tale, has a definite air of reality to it. It’s filled with scenes that feel genuine, sometimes uncomfortably so. Case in point is a well written scene outside a picturesque nursing home that unleashes some brutal truths that are hardly comfortable to talk about. But it’s those kind of perceptive observations that helps “The Savages” extend beyond what could have been, in lesser hands, a boring and predictable study of unlikeable characters. The fact that you end up caring about these people at all is a testament to the care invested by Jenkins and the actors. That said, spending time with the Savages makes me a little more thankful for the family I have.

Grade: A-
(Rated R for some sexuality and language.)