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Monday, November 20

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The Dark Knight

Here's the thing you must understand: even if you've dug up every possible trailer and clip of Heath Ledger as the greatest screen villain in any superhero movie ever, you really don't have any idea how good his performance is in The Dark Knight. The true strength of his Joker isn't his gallows humor one-liners or smart-ass quips as he tears apart what is left of the fabric of Gotham City (looking more like Chicago than the juiced-up version in Batman Begins). The true strength of the final complete performance of Ledger's life lies in his much longer monologues. You see, you may think he's playing The Joker, but he's actually playing the devil. He weaves truth and lies; every scheme is designed to wreak havoc on multiple layers, including ones that aren't always evident at first; he can also make you feel downright sorry for the guy as he weaves one of many autobiographies spun during the course of the film.

But a lot of what I've just named is as much a credit to the writers of The Dark Knight as Ledger. What Ledger adds to the mix is something he clearly picked up from this version of The Joker. Just as Batman's archenemy has no moral code or fiber, Ledger has completely ripped to shreds everything he and we have come to accept and settle for when it comes to a portrait of evil. He has dismantled the status quo of how bad guys have been played in the past, and given a big whopping "Fuck You" to every overacting, mustache-twirling ham who thinks that simply slicking back your hair and wearing dark clothes is the way villainy should be played in film. Watching Ledger move like a rabid animal or flick his tongue like an angry serpent is to behold something you have never seen on screen before and probably will not again in your lifetime. Clearly, I don't need to sell you on how good The Dark Knight is. By now, you've probably read dozens of such reviews. What's important to distinguish is that director and co-writer Christopher Nolan's epic telling of the Batman vs. Joker saga is more than just the greatest superhero movie ever made (and that it certainly is), but it's the finest crime drama of the year, the greatest character study and the greatest acting performance you'll see in 2008.

Not to oversell Ledger's work, but seeing his version of The Joker made me mad at Jack Nicholson for not taking it far enough. Nicholson has made a career out of being edgy and no-holds barred, but he and Tim Burton decided to make him a clown instead of a true maniac. I'm sure it was not Nolan's intention, but his film made me dislike a film I once enjoyed because I now see that Nicholson's Joker is a pussy. I still think Michael Keaton was a decent Batman, but Christian Bale has such great pent-up rage in him this time that no one can hold a candle to the dimensions he's adding to either side of his identity. Bruce Wayne gets as much time on screen as his costumed alter ego (maybe even more). And I never felt short-changed, probably because when Wayne is on display, it usually means that Michael Caine or Morgan Freeman or Gary Oldman is on screen with him. These characters (Wayne's butler, Alfred, who gets an interesting sliver of a backstory this time out; the new CEO of Wayne's corporation, Lucius Fox; and Lt. Gordon—soon to be Commissioner—who is almost Batman's right-hand man in the above-ground world) get more face time and more to do. They are not simply background characters kept around for the vibe; they are vital pieces to the goings on.

Maggie Gyllenhaal steps into Katie Holmes' role from the first film as Rachel Dawes, Wayne's childhood sweetheart and one of the few civilians who knows about his secret life. I guess I understand why the Batman films need a strong female presence, but the truth is, I've never liked any of the female characters in any of the Batman movies. Gyllenhaal's Rachel comes the closest to having a purpose other than slinking things up a bit and providing evidence that our hero is more than a shallow playboy (that said, the running joke about Bruce hooking up with the Russian ballet is priceless). Rachel is torn between her true love and her new love, the white knight district attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart in easily the finest performance he has ever given). The film's recurring theme of man's duality comes to an obvious point when Dent's face is severely burned thanks to a booby trap courtesy of The Joker, but it's also driven home with The Joker, who makes the interesting observation that he and Batman are just different kinds of crazy. And even Batman doesn't argue.

While Ledger's performance is the highlight of the film, the production's not-so secret weapon is its screenplay (co-written by the director and his brother Jonathan Nolan). There are some points in the writing that are absolute poetry. At other points, the humor is worthy of absolute fits of laughter. And the ending is staggering and unexpected. What the brothers Nolan understand is that The Joker doesn't have to kill thousands of people to scare the shit out of Gotham, he only needs to kill certain people to bring the city to its knees. Unlike Batman Begins, in which the evil scheme involved the slightly ridiculous idea of wiping out the entire city, I was far more angst-ridden by The Dark Knight's less complicated, but even more horrifying prospect of anarchy, chaos, mob rule and citizen turning on citizen. The Joker is a far more effective terrorist than Scarecrow or Ra's Al Ghul. But it's just as fun to watch how The Joker fights face to face. If possible, he hides behind his cronies, pushing them between himself and whoever is about to pummel him. And he never misses an opportunity to talk his way out of physical violence, which is not to say he doesn't relish a little knife play.

People keep asking me if The Dark Knight sets up an easy sequel. Of course it does. Most of the key actors signed to do three films. But much like Hellboy 2, the places a third Batman movie will go will be even darker and uglier than what has come before it. You may have noticed I haven't mentioned the film's action sequences once. They are glorious to be sure. But this film is that rare action film that won't leave you squirming between the explosions and car chases. I told you this was a crime drama, and the emphasis is on the drama. The conversations in this movie are just as compelling as the fighting and killing and crashing and blowing up.

In the end, I don't know if it's good or bad that we'll never get to see The Joker and Batman go head to head again in the current franchise. Of course it's terrible that Ledger is gone, but in a sentiment I'm sure The Joker could appreciate, he has left us wanting more. Even if Ledger had lived, I'm not sure I'd want him to reprise this character. That would almost be too much of a good thing. What he gave us is more than we deserve or could have anticipated, and for that I'm overwhelmingly grateful. I'll say it one more time, and then I won't have to ever say it again about this film or Ledger's work: you have no idea what's in store for you when you sit down to watch The Dark Knight.

The Last Mistress

Critics have often mistakenly identified French writer-director Catherine Breillat as a filmmaker who sacrifices plot for shock value. Perhaps with films like 36 Fillette and Romance, that might be more true, but the label is still unfair, especially when you consider her latest work The Last Mistress, a lush and not particularly shocking adaptation of Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly's 19th century novel that apparently scandalized a continent when it was published. The story tells us about a love affair between the aristocrat Ryno de Marigny (Fu-ad Ait Aattou) and Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), a virtuous young lovely. De Marigny has had a long-standing relationship with a fiery and older Spanish woman named La Vellini (Asia Argento), who immediately strikes you as the kind of woman who would rather die or kill than share her man.

Thankfully, Breillat hasn't forgotten her sexually explicit roots, nor has she diverted too far from her favorite subjects of the price women often pay for exploring their passions and sexual desires. Breillat herself isn't punishing these women; it is society attempting to stomp out any burning. The Last Mistress isn't all bodice ripping and steamy sex; Breillat also has a ferocious sense of humor running through some of her characters. This is one of those glorious French exercises in which the participants find witty and clever ways to verbally skewer an opponent or rival. Much of the film takes place in flashbacks chronicling the tumultuous affair between Marigny and Vellini, and what I found most remarkable about the entire story is that it is understood (by crazy people, apparently) that Vellini is not particularly attractive (especially compared to the absolutely porcelain Hermangarde). It seems that age and a little bit of body hair were issues for shallow society types even back then. It's good to know that even after her severe stroke a few years back that Breillat has not only been able to make films again, but is making some of the best of her 30-year career. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Elsa & Fred

This sweet, harmless, small story of two elderly people (the title characters) who meet in the apartment complex where they live and start an uneasy friendship that turns into romance is an easy watch that flies past thanks to two dynamic lead performers. China Zorrilla's Elsa is something of a con artist, who invents as much of her life story as she doesn't. According to her, she was a dead ringer for Anita Ekberg (circa La Dolce Vita), and her one great unfulfilled wish is to travel to Italy and cavort in the Trevi Fountain as Ekberg did in the film. Don't we all have that dream? Today, though, Elsa is living in a Madrid apartment and visiting the doctor frequently because of a clearly life-threatening illness.

Fred (actually Alfredo) recently lost his wife, and his grown daughter has essentially moved him out of the house and into the same apartment building. The old guy still has buckets of cash, and the offspring still comes crawling to him for business loans, but to Elsa, he represents something else: a possible trip to Italy and a good companion for the last months or years of her life. Elsa goes into full casual seduction mode, and Fred doesn't so much fall for her as he gives up trying to resist. The deeper these two go for each other, the more the rest of the world (especially their children) seem to discourage them from entering into such entanglements so late in life. Turns out Fred wasn't that in love with his wife; he admired her tidiness and that's about it. We find out a few things about Elsa's dead husband as well that are slightly shocking. The story, like the relationship, unfolds with few surprises but I always admire any filmmaker who doesn't stray from unconventional romance and doesn't treat this couple like they are some freak show to be stared at or grossed out by. I'm not familiar with director/co-writer Marcos Carnevale's previous films, but I was impressed with the laid-back, unhurried feeling of Elsa & Fred. Some of the language can get a bit dicey, but it's even safe to take older viewers to. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Indestructible

It's a nearly impossible endeavor on my part to write this review, but considering what the subject of this extraordinary film and his family went through, complaining on my part hardly seem appropriate. Indestructible is one of the finest documentaries about a person struggling with and fighting a disease for which there is no cure that I have ever seen. Plain and simple. Chicago actor, playwright, producer and now first-time director Ben Byer decided in 2002 at the age of 31 to turn the camera on himself when he was diagnosed with ALS (perhaps better known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), an always-fatal neurological disease with a life expectancy of two to five years. Rather than gather together friends and family (although both groups are represented plenty in the film) to pay tribute to this clearly spirited and driven artist, Byer chronicles his tireless and sometimes outright bizarre journey to prolong his life, and in the process he makes us better understand why people suffering from chronic and/or fatal conditions go to such seemingly far-reaching lengths to find some relief from their suffering or fate.

Byer bravely never shies away from the turmoil of his life, whether it's something as simple as the day-to-day effort to take off a t-shirt or a raging argument with him and his wife on one side and his well-meaning parents on the other. Despite Byer's extensive travels to China (where he has a scary experimental operation performed on him that was said to have positive results on other ALS patients) to Jerusalem (where he visits his brother and seeks some degree of spiritual understanding), this is really a movie about a dying man's quest for the meaning of life. And this certainly isn't The Bucket List. Instead, Indestructible maps out Ben's life from diagnosis to cure seeking to acceptance to realization that time with his young son and those closest to him are what needs to happen before he's unable to communicate or even move (ALS slowly destroys speech and muscle usage). Byer spends almost more time than anything detailing each setback, and as a result, he provides an understanding of a journey that millions go through ever year with any number of grave afflictions. He's not a crusader, but his personal strength is something you simply can't help but be moved and overwhelming by.

The film plays at the Gene Siskel Film Center on July 18 at 8pm; July 21 at 7:45pm; and July 22 at 8:30pm. Indestructible covers only three years of Byer's life, and the screener that I was given didn't provide us an update on where things stood with Ben today (he, along with producer Rebeccah Rush—Ben's sister—and editor Tim Baron, were scheduled to appear at the screenings). And then just about two weeks ago, I got a few emails that gave me the update: Ben Byer died on July 3. If you think you can handle spending two hours getting know this extremely likable man through the film and knowing that his struggle is now over, your life will undoubtedly be transformed by seeing this film. Rush and Baron are still scheduled to attend these screenings to pay tribute to this courageous soul, and I'm guessing tickets will go fast, so get yours early. It's unlikely you'll see another film like this in your lifetime, especially under these heartbreaking circumstances.

Space Chimps

Patrick Warburton doing a voice in any animated film or television show is guaranteed gold. Even if the movie itself is junk, Warburton always makes it worth sitting through the most awful crap just to hear his take on whatever character he happens to be playing. He's proven this time and time again with Bee Movie, "Family Guy," "Kim Possible," "The Venture Brothers," Chicken Little, Hoodwinked, Home on the Range, The Emperor's New Groove, The Wild, Open Season and Happily N'ever After. Now there are quite a few stinkers in that group, but the minute I spot Warburton's voice, I cheer up a tiny bit and sometimes more than a tiny bit, depending on how big his part is. There's just something about hearing him go from slow-burn to explosive shouting that never gets old. I've never interviewed him, but I'd love to one day; I'd imagine he'd have quite a bit to say about the differences between acting for animation versus bring a cartoon to life ("The Tick") to plain-old human acting. Now I'm not knocking his live-action acting work at all. I like actually seeing Warburton almost as much as I enjoy hearing him; his cameo in Get Smart had me in anticipatory stitches for a sequel. I cannot, however, say the same thing about Space Chimps, a cheaply animated outer space adventure about a group of monkeys working for NASA who are sent into space to explore a wormhole to another part of the universe where alien life might exist.

According to the credits, the actual star of the film is "SNL's" Andy Samberg, and he does an okay job keeping the energy high and the bad jokes flying as Ham III, the grandson of the original astro-chimp, Him, who was technically the first American in space. Ham works as a circus performer when the story starts, but NASA is looking for a "name" chimp to be the face of the mission, and they track down Ham III. But you and I both know who the real star of this show is: one Mr. Warburton, who voices Titan, the seasoned space chimp whose ego is as inflated as his muscles. The third member of the space travelers is Lunc (Cheryl Hines), who Ham III immediately takes a liking to. I was waiting for the hot monkey love sex scene, but alas, all we get is playful G-rated flirting.

The alien world at the end of the wormhole is inhabited by a largely friendly group of creatures and one decisively evil bugger named Dr. Jagu (Jeff Daniels), who manages to go from town grump to evil ruler of the planet when an earth space probe lands on his house. He manages to get control of a bit of NASA exploratory equipment, and everyone becomes very scared of him. Once the chimps arrive, a battle between the good earthlings and the bad alien commences. Also providing voices in Space Chimps is Stanley Tucci as a senator who threatens to kill NASA's budget if the chimps and their vehicle don't return safely; Kristin Chenoweth as an alien named Kilowatt who does almost nothing in this story other than look cute and make her head glow; and Jane Lynch, whose amazing powers of improv are utterly wasted reciting lines from this dopey script from writer-director Kirk De Micco, giving us his feature debut.

I don't think anyone reading this will be surprised that Space Chimps is lame. But for those of you who collect bits of Warburton performances like bits of candy, you won't be horribly pained to sit through this ho-hum production just to get your dose of the Warburt-man. But this film isn't particularly inspired as a comedy, adventure film or a bit of kiddy sci-fi. It's just your garden variety mix of pop culture references, toilet gags and overacting by the voice actors and the animators. I'm tired of animated films that don't even try, and when you pit this movie against something like Wall-E or even Kung Fu Panda, it irritates my chapped ass that this film was even made. So in conclusion: Warburton=Good; Space Chimps=Bad.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to steve@steveatthemovies.com.

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