Tag Archives: Tragedy

“THE DARK KNIGHT” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Two madmen at war with each other and themselves.

Editor’s note: I was originally going to hold off on publishing this review due to an upcoming in-depth article I’m working on. However, upon learning that today would have been Heath Ledger’s 37th birthday, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to honor the late actor’s magnificent work. So, without further adieu, here is my review for the magnificent superhero epic that is ‘The Dark Knight.’

The Dark Knight is a moral dilemma about two madmen trying to make sense out of their own worlds. One hides his madness with a mask. The other demonstrates it proudly with a crooked smile and a demented laugh. We define one as “good” and the other as “bad”, but really, what’s the real difference between these two? They are both traumatized by tragedies they’ve experienced at very young ages, and one was clearly more devastating than the other. Just switch around Bruce Wayne’s childhood with that of the Joker’s for a second. Is it really that far-fetched to think that they could have grown up to become the other person?

It’s difficult to draw such similar parallels between a film’s protagonist and antagonist, especially in a superhero movie where everything is supposed to be so cut and dry. But Christopher Nolan orchestrates his characters masterfully here in The Dark Knight, a film that feels more like a Shakespearean tragedy than it does as a superhero blockbuster. It isn’t a film that is driven by big-budget fights and special effects, although those technical elements definitely don’t suffer in the movie all the same. This is a movie driven by character’s ambitions, desires, loss, and pain. Rarely does a film reach into such dark depths and have such outstanding payoff.

This movie is, of course, the sequel to Nolan’s highly praised 2005 prequel Batman Begins, which too succeeds in showing Bruce Wayne not as a comic book icon, but as a human being, reliably portrayed by Christian Bale with his own complexions and regrets. The Dark Knight continues Bruce’s story, but takes focus off of Batman and puts a larger focus on Gotham, the city Bruce is sworn to protect. In doing that, Nolan inadvertently creates another character in the Batman story, and you only need to look at its citizens to see what the character is like. It’s manipulative, murderous, deceitful, selfish, and crooked, with the only evidence of decency in only a handful of citizens wanting to do the right thing.

Heath Ledger’s Joker, of course, sees the sick nature of Gotham and imposes his own version of justice upon the city. From a different perspective, could the Joker be considered the hero of the story? Both Batman and the Joker are vigilantes in their own ways. The difference is who they see as the main poison to Gotham.

Like any other superhero, Batman sees the criminals and mob bosses as the biggest culprits to Gotham’s decay. The Joker, however, sees it differently. He sees the city’s politicians, judges, police officers, and commissioners as the real criminals. Technically, neither is wrong. All of these people are responsible for the state that Gotham is in, and Batman and Joker are just picking two different sides to the same coin. Our instinct tells us to root for Batman, mostly because we are the everyday regular citizen he’s fighting to protect. But the Joker has been hurt day-in and day-out by regular citizens. So has Batman. His parents were killed by a citizen of Gotham. The Joker forces citizens to kill each other in The Dark Knight. In witnessing all of this murder and corruption taking place, you can’t help but ask yourself one question: are we even worth saving?

This gloomy idea of morality has been explored by Christopher Nolan before. Indeed, his career has been defined by character’s questioning ethics in 2000’s Memento and 2006’s The Prestige. Look at those films and how eerily similar they are to The Dark Knight. Look at the parallels not just in character and theme, but in tone and aesthetic. Look at how closely they are shot. Look at how tightly the action is edited together, yet coherent enough to understand everything we need to. Look at the character’s conflicts that test them and, in some cases, even break them. Look at their state of mind and security, and how quickly they decay in the midst of crippling loss, paranoia, and distrust.

This is why The Dark Knight is almost universally seen as the best comic book movie of all time: because it is not a comic book movie. Nolan didn’t film it like a comic book movie. He didn’t want to make a comic book movie, or at least, in the conventional sense. Everything involved with this movie, from the writing to the framing to the visual effects to the acting, was constructed with the idea that Nolan and Warner Bros. were making something much more than a comic book movie. They were making a crime film, a psychological drama, and a visual poem in disguise as a superhero blockbuster.

Just to clarify, I’m not knocking the superhero genre. Some of the greatest movies of all time spawned out of that genre, and if done right, it can be the best out of any of the other film genres. Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Superman II humanized a superhero that was anything but human. Spider-Man made an ordinary character extraordinary. X2 embedded a message of prejudice into an action-fueled sci-fi thriller.

Great superhero movies have come before The Dark Knight, and many more will come after. But what makes The Dark Knight unique is not its status as a quote-unquote “superhero” movie. It is its mirroring psychology that makes you question what is truly right or wrong. Superhero movies don’t normally do that. They normally provide our hero and our villain and have them go at each other in fun, comic-booky fashion. But that wasn’t enough for The Dark Knight. It needed to ask why they were going after each other, and what was at stake if they didn’t do so? This is one of the rare action movies that questions if our hero is actually doing the right thing, and if he’s fighting this labeled villainy in the right way.

In these characterizations, the performances are key, and Bale and Ledger alike to brilliant work in not just bringing their characters to life, but their beliefs as well. Ledger has received all the acclaim and the Academy Award for best supporting actor as the Joker, and he’s right to. He’s delivered a downright chilling portrayal of a mentally disturbed madman: a brilliant finish to a long and successful career up until his death in 2008. Yet, I don’t think many people notice Bale’s nuanced performance as a man struggling to know and do the right thing. That’s genuinely a shame, because the movie is a success due to their acting together, not just one performance over the other. Again, they treat their characters not as superheros and supervillains, but as competing complexions, battling each other not for the sake of justice, but for the sake of proving their own personally defined morality. At the end of the day, isn’t the battle of morality more powerful than any physical battle can ever be?

The film builds up to it’s highly-anticipated climax in classic Nolan fashion. The final battle, however, is not between our hero and villain, but instead between the two sides of Gotham. One side has been convicted by the law. The other has been convicted by God. And in their convictions, both sides are forced to make a choice. I won’t spoil what happens, but I will say this: they make the right one.

Batman and Joker are not two different people. They are two sides to the same coin. We too exist on a coin and have the equal potential of being either Batman or the Joker. It’s only a matter of what we choose to be.

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“THE GREAT GATSBY” Review (✫✫✫)

Nice to see you again, old sport.  

When you sit and think about the character of Jay Gatsby, there is never a simple answer to define him and his purpose in The Great Gatsby.  Some people have cited him as a post-modern interpretation of Romeo And Juliet, in the aspect that the character is going through a romantic struggle that always ends in nothing but tragedy.  Others have viewed him as a representation of the roaring twenties, as a pioneer who emboldens and defines the industrial image of the 1920’s and their status as they faded away into the 1930’s.  Others see him more like an enigma, an image of the upper class and the bleak loneliness that comes with it.  Whatever you believe to see, Jay Gatsby is no simple character.  For all we know, he could be one or none of these things.  Or all of them.

The fact that this film knows, respects, and acknowledges that makes me appreciate this movie, and hope that others can appreciate it too through DiCaprio’s performance and the mythology being revisited here.  Those who read the book should already know the story: a 1920’s bond salesman and struggling writer named Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves into New York city, where he learns of his rich next door “neighbor” named Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).

I put “neighbor” in quotations because Nick never actually sees Jay Gatsby in the beginning of the film.  All he ever sees of his estranged, self-secluded neighbor is a man looking behind some curtains and holding lavish parties in his mansion in the cool of midnight.  All he ever hears of him is scandalous rumors and war stories about a man many people haven’t met either.  The more Nick lives in his lonely little house, the more he questions if Mr. Gatsby even exists.

Eventually, Mr. Gatsby of course does introduce himself, but not as the host of the party, but rather, as a humble servant who offers Nick a drink on a plate of beverages.  As Nick becomes more familiar with Mr. Gatsby and his lifestyle, he soon learns the truth of Mr. Gatsby’s past and the reasons he really came to New York.

When I first heard of another Great Gatsby picture being made, my first reaction was excitement and anticipation.  How could it not be?  From the creative mind of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the many politics and emotions he makes you feel in his novel, it sounded like this movie was going to be a home run for both fans and non-fans of the book.

Then I learned that Baz Lurhmann was writing and directing.  And then bowed my head and uttered a long, dubious groaaannnn.  Lurhmann, who is most known for directing 1996’s Romeo + Juliet and 2008’s Australia, is commonly remembered as a director who abuses style over substance.  With the previous films I just mentioned, not only are they silly, soupy, and sappy menial dramas: they fail to even attain interest, and are extremely forgettable in a line of much better romantic dramas, including Titanic and the 1968 Romeo And Juliet by Franco Zeffirelli.

Note: Okay, I’ll admit I haven’t seen his 2001 film Moulin Rouge!.  Does it matter though, when out of his entire filmography, that’s the only film he can really brag about?  

The beginning of The Great Gatsby, much like Luhrmann’s other pictures, also suffers from this case of style over substance, with its overly boisterous parties and distracting art sequences making no coherent sense or adding anything to the picture overall.  What I found interesting, however, is that the first act barely matters.  When Jay Gatsby is finally introduced, the film takes a sharp turn of interest and invigorates the audience with new energy, almost like the character changes the entire tone of the film simply by him just being there.

I imagine this is the kind of Jay Gatsby that Fitzgerald would have wanted cast: the type that dresses in nice suits, stands straight with his chin up, and one who enters a room with such stillness that you could hear a penny drop.  The casting directors knew that their casting decision would be crucial to the film, and I think Fitzgerald would be pleased with the end result.  DiCaprio hits every single note dead-on this fascinating character, and just by sheer appearance, demeanor and dialect does he inhabit the character of Jay Gatsby and allow audiences to slip into his conscience and feel what he is feeling.

Oh, I won’t deny everyone else is good in this movie.  Joel Edgerton is effective as the antagonist, and even though he’s an industrial pioneer much like Gatsby is, he has such a hateful energy about him that makes you just want to run him over with a yellow beetle.  Carey Mulligan is good as Gatsby’s love interest, and perfectly shows all the innocence and indecisiveness of her character in the midst of all the ruckus.  Maguire, as well, is perfect as Nick Carraway, not as a character in himself, but as a silent observer, a passive voice who quietly watches over the scene, acting as the audience’s eyes and ears in this third-person narrative.  But its DiCaprio who sucks us in, DiCaprio who winds us up and plays us like a record as he asks us to sit through this tender, emotionally captivating journey that serves as a metaphor for the wealthy and for the industrial era.

And don’t worry, I’ll give Luhrmann credit too.  This film would not have survived without his writing or directing, as he has such reverence for the book and a great fear from deviating from it that the movie functions more as a love letter to Fitzgerald than it does as a strict book-to-movie adaptation.

Regardless, there’s only one person who shines the most here.  DiCaprio made this movie, and through his performance we were able to identify with a character that struggles with his past, his wealth, his love, and the deepening sadness that he hides behinds his warm, welcoming smile.

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“PAN’S LABYRINTH” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The perfect blend of fantasy and reality. 

Now here’s one you’re not going to be expecting.  Here is a spanish-language fantasy film that blends elements of reality and war drama with that of horror and psychological thrillers.  It’s rated R with a healthy amount of blood, violence, and language, it has a child as its lead character, and it is a fantasy film with no cuddly creatures and no misplaced sense of optimism.  It’s also in spanish, one of my most frustrating languages.  And it is also probably one of the best films of its kind.  Maybe the only one of its kind.

Written and directed by spanish filmmaker Guillmo Del Toro, Pan’s Labyrinth is a post-Spanish civil war story about a young girl named Ofelia (brilliantly portrayed by Ivana Bacquero), who is fascinated and enticed by the many stories and fables she finds in her books and novellas.  Her mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil) is pregnant with her unborn brother, and they have been ordered to move to an outpost located on the outskirts of Mexico so the boy can be born next to his father: Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), a cruel and heartless product of war that knows nothing of decency, morality, kindness, or human life.  This is a man who would kill a father and his son thinking that they lied about being hunters, and a second later pulls out their quarry in the bottom of their knapsack.

This is the situation Ofelia is trapped in: the cruelty and strictness of Captain Vidal, and the negligence and weakness of her pregnant mother.  In the stories that she reads, however, Ofelia finds escape: she soon discovers a cave hidden deep within the gardens of the outpost, unnoticed to the human eye.  It is here deep within the cave where she finds odd inscriptions, a plethora of fairies, and even an anonymous Faun (Portrayd by Doug Jones, voiced by Pablo Adan), who informs her of her true destiny: that she is the lost princess Moanna of their sacred kingdom, and she must complete three specific assignments tasked by the Faun in order to become a princess once again.

This is the kind of story Pan’s Labyrinth is: the kind that deftly blends elements of wondrous fantasy with that of tragic reality.  This is rare treasure for foreign-language cinema: a film that while it is visually expressive, it is also a deep and personal commentary on the tragedies of war and its effects on a torn country.  Del Toro has elaborated on such subjects before: his 2001 film The Devils Backbone also took place during the Spanish Civil war, and it also featured a child in great distress.  Here though, I feel that he has a better handling of his premise, and if it is not better, it is at least more creative and dynamic in approach.

The visuals reach out in stellar, gritty, and striking details, the fairies light and whimsical, the faun towering, ancient, and brutish.  There are so many visually stunning scenes in this movie, at times it is overwhelming.  Del Toro, with the help of his cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, do something rare here: they paint a world here as fascinating as it is dangerous, a mesmerizing and gripping world that hypnotizes you with its appeal and its imagination.  One might say Pan’s Labyrinth is an adult version of Alice In Wonderland: I disagree with that.  I think this is the realistic version of Alice In Wonderland.

Why do I say this?  It might be because the movie is very deserving in its R rating.  Besides the occasional F-word uttered in spanish, there is a great deal of gore and violence in the movie, some of it aimed towards children.  I’ll be the first to admit, Pan’s Labyrinth is heavy on violence.  People are shot frequently in the film, often in very bloody manners.  People’s limbs get cut off.  In once scene, a man smashes a farm boy’s nose in with the butt of an alcohol bottle.  And in one terrifying scene, Ofelia is fleeing capture from a pale man-eating monster, who proves his monstrosity by biting the heads off of the fairies assisting her.  Don’t take your kids to this, folks: the movie is extremely violent.

While I would normally take points of a film for using excessive violence, here I believe it is warranted.  Through every gunshot, through every murder, and through every droplet of blood, Del Toro is saying something provocative about war and innocence, most of it being things we need to hear of.  I don’t believe Pan’s Labyrinth is just memorable, stunning, and poignant entainment: I believe it is relevant storytelling.

And at last, we come to the films conclusion, which is so mesmerizing and emotionally overpowering that we don’t know what to make of it.  Did Ofelia complete all of her tasks?  Was the Faun telling the truth?  Did she become the fabled princess?  Was it all a ruse?  Or did she simply become a victim of the earthly world from which she was born of?  The ending is eloquent, vast, and beautiful, open for many possible interpretations.  You decide which one fits you best once you see the movie.

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