It’s all about the adaptations this week and contender number one is a film that deserves all the attention it has been receiving, even though it falls well short of its esteemed source material. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is based on the greatest graphic novel of all time, Moore and Gibbons 1986 pre-apocalyptic masterpiece which is one of the darkest portraits of the modern human condition ever rendered in the bold, flat colours of a comic book.
In a parallel USA in which costumed vigilantes are real but outlawed, the spectre of nuclear annihilation looms over a supposedly free society that is coming apart at the seams. One by one, somebody is disposing of the retired heroes and only masked sociopath Rorschach (who never turned in his mask, revealed his identity or stopped beating up bad guys) deems it worthy of investigation.
Back in 1986 Frank Miller single-handedly reinvented the Batman franchise in book form with “The Dark Knight Returns”, a four-part mini-series which saw an ageing Bruce Wayne come out of retirement one last time to fight the scourge of lawlessness that beset his beloved Gotham City. Fans have waited in vain for that story (dark, cynical, epic and powerful) to arrive on the silver screen but Christopher Nolan’s current version of the hero (introduced in Batman Begins in 2005) is still heading in the right direction, even to the extent of cribbing Miller’s title for this second episode.
In The Dark Knight we join the action not long after the end of the previous film. The forces of Gotham City law enforcement (with the help of the masked vigilante and a few unfortunate copy cats in hockey pads) are squeezing the city’s organised crime syndicates and cleaning up the city. Only psychopathic freakazoid The Joker (Heath Ledger) seems to be able to act with impunity and he offers the Mob a deal: he’ll dispatch the flying bat in exchange for half their business.
Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) still hankers after beautiful Asst DA Rachel Dawes (this time played by Maggie Gyllenhaal replacing Katie Holmes) who promised they could be together if he could ever give up his double-life. The arrival on the scene of handsome and principled District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) as legitimate crime-fighter (a “white knight”) might just give him a way out, only Dent is also in love with Rachel. Meanwhile, The Joker’s plot to destroy Batman strikes closer and closer to home.
Despite being more than 20 minutes longer than it needs to be, The Dark Knight is a successful attempt to balance the thrills and spills of a modern day blockbuster with something a little more psychologically demanding. Nolan has claimed that there is very little digital effects work in the film and that he tried to shoot as much of the action as real as possible and it pays off – there must have been some digital in there but (apart from Dent’s astonishing and grotesque transformation into Two-Face) I couldn’t pick any.
It is disappointing that Nolan’s vision of Gotham City from the first film seems to have faded. Instead of the hyper-modern city in disrepair we got last time, now it looks like plain old modern day New York crossed with Chicago crossed with Toronto, and I guess that was one of the sacrifices made in the decision to ditch digital but the city itself is well short on atmosphere.
Bale, as ever, leaves this reviewer cold, but the supporting players are all fine actors in great form (particularly Michael Caine as Alfred, the former Special Forces butler). Ledger is tremendous and provides hints of the kind of liberating work he might have been capable of had he lived, although talk of a posthumous Oscar seems excessive. After all, since Cesar Romero in the 60s The Joker has been a license to ham and this version specifically is supposed to be all show and no depth.
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on Wednesday 31 july, 2008. Sorry, I am so behind with posting. I’ll try and get this week’s edition up before the end of the weekend.
Notes on screening conditions: The Dark Knight screened at a surprisingly busy Monday morning session at Readings. And when I say “surprisingly busy” I mean over 100 people. At 11.00am!
One of the benefits of a marginally-classical education is that when someone makes a film about King Leonidas and The Battle of Thermopylae I have a vague idea what they’re on about before I go in but nothing could prepare me for the sheer visceral “total” film-making on display in Zack Snyder’s extraordinary 300. Involving and repellent by turns, it’s a thrilling testament to full-on masculine male manliness; unspeakably violent of course but extreme in almost every other way imaginable too.
Based on Frank Miller’s $80-a-copy graphic novel (recreated frame for beautiful frame in many cases), 300 follows Leonidas and his hand-picked Spartan army as they try to defend a disinterested Greece from a million Persians, their slaves, elephants and transexuals.
Leonidas is played with considerable star-making charisma by Gerard Butler (Dear Frankie); Aussie David Wenham narrates as if he got punch in the throat as well losing an eye in the battle and the beautiful Lena Headey as Queen proves that Spartan women were made of the same perfectly formed but psychologically incomplete material as the men.
Fresh from the Showcase, The Namesake is a lovingly rendered (if overlong) adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jhumpa Lahiri featuring Kal Penn (given name: Kalpen Modi), veteran star of juvenile rubbish like Epic Movie and Van Wilder. Penn proves he really can act as Gogol Ganguly, New York-born Indian searching for an identity that doesn’t involve his embarrassing first name.
In the initially bewildering Stomp The Yard, Columbus Short plays DJ, a young hoodlum and gifted dancer who is given one more chance after the death of his younger brother in a dance-related brawl. That chance involves enrolling in Truth University, the legendary African-American centre of learning and culture where the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Michael Jordan set the highest alumni standards.
At Truth he finds his dancing skills are tested in the National Steppin’ Contest (a kind of team dancing unique to Black America) and his romantic skills are given a tweak by the beautiful April (Meagan Good). I’m about as far away from the target market for this film as can be imagined but, once I’d worked out that this dancing stuff was actually serious, I quite enjoyed it.
Meanwhile, Vitus is a little sweetie from Switzerland about a gifted child who desperately wants to be normal. A lovely performance from twinkly Bruno Ganz is worth the price of admission and Teo Georghiu as 12-year-old Vitus really has the chops to make that old joanna sing. Remarkable.
Finally a couple of disposable items for the school holidays: TMNT is actually the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and it boasts video-game quality animation and a slumming Patrick Stewart on villain-voice-duty. I found the turtles really annoying but, then again, they are teenagers. It’s sort of the point.
Much more entertaining is Disney’s Meet the Robinsons, an anarchic affair that unlike other animated films has a kind of improvised quality, bouncing along chucking jokes in random directions and a few of them stick. 12 year old orphan Lewis is a gifted inventor desperate for a family. When his latest invention is stolen by mysterious Bowler Hat Guy, young hot-head Wilbur Robinson arrives from the future to help set things straight (and help Lewis find his mother).
Printed in Wellington’s Capital Times on 11 April, 2007.