Sunday, February 15, 2009

Dark City, Dark Knight

I've watched two films on DVD recently that have impressed me in different ways. Dark Knight was last summer's blockbuster. It was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the artist I feel is the best active director in film today. His earlier work, Memento, is one of my all-time favorite films. Nolan has had an impressive career to date.

Dark Knight is classic Nolan and one of his best films. He has Hitchcock's sensibilities about suspense. His films build momentum, relentlessly, be they pure drama or action-adventure.
His choice of music for the film is particularly noteworthy.

But the film is stolen by
Heath Ledger's brilliant portrayal of The Joker. I can't help but compare Ledger with my favorite actor, Jack Nicholson's portrayal of the same role in the 1989 Batman. Nicholson was twisted, maniacal, but Ledger pushes these qualities with a deeply insightful character, who understands things about the world and plays them to his advantage. Ledger humanizes the role to the point where The Joker isn't just a villain, he's truly a psychotic monster, made all the more terrifying by the bits of humanity you glimpse now and then in the performance.
Nolan's direction of Ledger was a stroke of genius, allowing the actor free rein, but simultaneously guiding him to places he didn't originally envision, giving the viewer a surprisingly subtle uneasiness, an orchestrated anxiety. The Joker is not someone strange anymore, he is something the viewer can almost understand. It is within this recognizable yet demented construct that Nolan builds believable (and, therefore, more deeply disturbing) tension.

Of course, the film is visually marvelous,
the special effects and action sequences highly entertaining.

Another film that made an even stronger impression was viewing
Dark City for the first time on a DVD I bought cheaply at Wal-Mart yesterday. This was the "Director's Cut" of a film I previously owned only on VHS and had watched 2-3 times.

There are several changes in the director's cut, most of them subtle. The most significant change was the omission of the original narration at the beginning of the film that basically explains the context for everything, thereby ruining the journey for anyone bright enough to slowly figure things out for themselves. I was surprised how much I enjoyed this version of the movie. It is visually arresting at times, highly complex and demanding your attention of the many mysterious details that are gradually explained and made comprehensible by the end of the film.

Dark City is my favorite type of film, a highly metaphorical one. It explores a variety of substantive questions. What makes us human? Where is the essence of who we are? What are the possibilities of consciousness as a universal phenomenon? It makes many other inquiries while the outstanding cast gives terrific performances worthy of the film's substance, lighting, color, pacing, and tone.


Jennifer and I kept noticing how much it compared with another film that came out a year after Dark City, The Matrix. Whereas, The Matrix took the route of being highly computerized with its effects, Dark City is low-tech with larger sets. Dark City has more of a classic (noir) film feel to it and it feels bigger than the The Matrix both visually (though not as innovative in its effects) and in terms of substance (The Matrix ends up with a strong, somewhat more common, master-slave-technology slant whereas Dark City is something completely different). Though both films are compelling and well made, I discovered in re-watching Dark City for the first time in probably 6-7 years that it is in most every way superior to The Matrix in what it attempts and what it actually accomplishes.

Dark City might be worthy of a Blu-Ray upgrade. It is the type of film that demands repeat viewings. And, like Lawrence of Arabia, for example, it gets better practically every time you watch it.

It was certainly a pleasant surprise for me to remember and experience this wonderful film upon viewing the director's cut for the first time.

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