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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt

The Dark Knight

Every year, hundreds of movies are produced and twenty performers in a few of those movies are justifiably honored with Oscar nominations, but it is far less often that a film performance occurs which is so utterly spellbinding that it transcends the movie it is in to captivate the viewer with the sheer joy of witnessing the art of acting. James Dean in East of Eden, Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Judy Garland in A Star Is Born, Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice. There are maybe a dozen or two-dozen others, but in 2008, one more has been added to this exclusive group, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Here you have an enormous summer blockbuster film and, from past examples in various media, one of the showiest roles an actor can land, and Ledger’s take on the part is completely counter-intuitive. He underplays every moment, but as a result, every moment is bursting in its containment with the wit of the unexpected. The director, Christopher Nolan, has also accomplished something remarkable. He has made a sequel as if it were not a sequel, completely re-imagining the movie’s setting and its rules. No director following up upon the success of an initial adaptation of a comic book has ever done this before. Most good comic book sequels are likeTim Burton’s second Batman movie. Freed from the need to establish origins, they expand the palette and take on riskier narrative choices, but all within the safety of the ‘formula’ that worked the first time out. In Nolan’sBatman Begins, the city where the hero lived had a fantasy design and there were elements of the supernatural blended into the action. The film was legitimately hailed for bringing a new sense of realism and sobriety to the franchise, but that was in comparison to the previous installments. It still had elaborate model work and far-fetched action scenes that were appealing but well in keeping with the exaggerations of the genre. Even the best directors will trust in what has succeeded for them in the past, but Nolan, perhaps taking a cue from the ‘Dark Knight’ comic book source that was also one of those periodic upgrading and re-imaginings of a series that had gone a bit stale, went for an almost radically different and substantially more realistic environment this time out. The city is Chicago with a few extra buildings. The action could almost actually happen. And in the center of these changes is Ledger’s portrayal of the villainous Joker character, whose insanity is so quiet that it is unnervingly scary, because you let him get closer to you than you would ever allow a more flamboyant character to intrude. All of the actors get to act, and do it well (Christian Bale returns in the title role). One of the compelling aspects of the 153-minute feature is that while it does have a constant stream of excitements (enough to sustain its extended running time), it also takes on complex philosophical conflicts that are blended adeptly into the drama. They include the expected moral quandaries about vigilantism and leadership, as well as less easily defined explorations of free will and the nature of evil. That is the substance that allows a viewer to view the film again without growing impatient, but it is the anticipation and the satisfaction of seeing Ledger conduct his craft that generates the reason for wanting to watch the film over and over.

Yeah, it’s coming out on DVD, but Warner Home Video is also releasing The Dark Knight on Blu-ray and there is every reason to believe that it will be a defining title for the format. The Widescreen DVD is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.4:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. However, a half-dozen action sequences in the movie were shot in IMAX, and while the rest of the film (and even shots within the sequences that weren’t IMAX shots) are presented in the 2.4:1 aspect ratio, the IMAX shots are presented in 1.78:1 on the BD. The film is so enthralling that you are barely aware of the shift, but however crisp and immediate the movie looks in the regular scenes, the IMAX segments quicken the pulse with an even greater immediacy and vividness. One of the reasons the action sequences are so effective is that the visual effects are held to a minimum. It looks real, not fantastic, and the quality of the picture does nothing to dissuade one’s subconscious from believing it. The 5.1-channel TrueHD sound on the BD is appropriately impactful, with clear separations, an active directional surround, and plenty of bass with every smackdown. Unlike some big films, the movie’s audio design is not a centerpiece of its showcase, but it underscores the emotional flow of the entertainment with complete authority and takes full advantage of the Blu-ray’s range of capability. It is because the dynamics of the Blu-ray system are so ideally suited to the film that fans will want the BD for their collection, and it is because Ledger is given such a thrilling proscenium that fans will want the Blu-ray system to best savor his exceptional, giddy, and timelessly surprising performance.

Without the BD superseding it, the DVD’s picture looks excellent, and the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has plenty of power and dimensional presence. Both versions have alternate French and Spanish tracks in 5.1, and both have optional English, French and Spanish subtitles.

Warner is also releasing a Two-Disc Special Edition on DVD. The first platter is identical to the Widescreen release. The second platter has a copy of the film that can be downloaded onto handheld viewing devices. It also has an elaborately produced collection of TV news program profiles set within the film’s universe and featuring several supporting cast members. The 47-minute segment also works fairly well as a prolog to the film itself, although there is nothing exceptionally witty or inspired in any of the pieces. Also featured is a separate 26-minute presentation of the IMAX sequences in their proper aspect ratio, 24 minutes of interesting production featurettes, three trailers and a collection of promotional materials in still frame.

On the BD, the copy available for downloading to handheld viewing devices is presented on a third platter. The first platter has 64 minutes of good production featurettes (of which the DVD’s 24 minutes are a subset) available both separately and in coordination with the film’s playback through prompts. The second platter has the news report section and the trailers, along with six TV commercials, a passable 46-minute piece on the technology the hero (and his comic book predecessors) utilizes, and a less interesting 46-minute piece on the psychologies of the hero and his antagonists.

December 9, 2008

– by Douglas Pratt

Douglas Pratt’s DVD-Laser Disc Newsletter is published monthly.
For a free sample, call (516)594-9304 or go to his website at

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon