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JULY 18, 2008

The Endless Knight

The Dark Knight glories in sadism; Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired makes the case for a rapist

By Mark Jenkins

Sad Clown: The Dark Knight's Ledger and Gyllenhaal try to slash their way to significance. (Warner Bros.)

Also this week: Reviews of TUYA'S MARRIAGE, THE LAST MISTRESS, and MAMMA MIA. Also opening: TELL NO ONE, which I reviewed for National Public Radio's website. Clicking on the title of the last film will take you to my review at

BATMAN BEGINS AGAIN, and again and again, in The Dark Knight, a tiresome exercise in monumental destruction and meager philosophizing. Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan's second tango with the tormented Batman is even grimmer than the first, and longer and dumber to boot. Endowed with accidental gravity by the unfortunate death of Heath Ledger, who plays the Joker, the movie has been credited in some circles as a serious contemplation of human perversity. But it's all just shtick, however solemn and overblown. Just because The Dark Knight is humorless doesn't mean it's not a joke.

Although gloomier and more violent than most superhero flicks -- the PG-13 rating is a scandal -- The Dark Knight suffers from the genre's usual afflictions. It's overstuffed with plotlines and characters (especially villains), and disregards the original comic's sense of place and scale. At its most pointless, the film temporarily becomes a James Bond knockoff, dispatching Batman to Hong Kong to retrieve a bad guy whose very existence is just narrative clutter. The real reason for the trip is to show Batman swooping through the high-rises of an Asian metropolis, a sequence that packs no more novelty than the movie's various car-chase and explosion scenes.

When the tale begins, Batman (a buff and electro-growly but otherwise featureless Christian Bale) is troubled by his reputation as a vigilante, and worried that lost love Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes) is falling for gang-busting D.A. Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). Gotham City (impersonated, annoyingly, by Chicago) is suffering a plague of Batman wannabes, a plot strand that's left dangling when a world congress of local gangsters -- Russian, Italian, African-American, and Chinese -- finds itself upstaged by the Joker. This psychotic prankster kills with abandon, and mostly for fun, only occasionally advancing any coherent agenda -- or the story. Various central characters die, although not always permanently. At a moment that arrives so late that it should have just been saved for a third Nolan installment, Dent suffers a great loss and a grotesque disfigurement, and adds to Batman's list of nemeses by becoming the vengeful Two Face.

Although it can't be said that Nolan has done worse by Batman than Joel Schumacher, who directed the two lousiest films in the series, the British director's approach is unduly ponderous and absurdly joyless. This is an action film that has no sense of play, not even when just blowing stuff up for the hell of it. That's partially because the action is awkward and often incomprehensible. Shot mostly in near-darkness, and edited with heedless hyperactivity, The Dark Knight is as biff! bang! pow! as the cruddy 1960s TV series, but without that show's redeeming campiness. And when a one of a character's moves can be actually be followed from beginning to end, it's usually sadistic. One creepy example: The Joker makes a pencil "disappear" by driving it into a mobster's skull, a joke whose punchline is that it's not funny at all.

Nolan's embrace of vigilantism sometimes makes the movie play like a John McCain campaign commercial. Converted from courtroom strategies to direct action, Dent rebukes Batman for imagining "we could be decent men, in an indecent world." But most of the film's moral doctrine is delivered by the Joker, and is derived, however roughly, from Nietzsche. In his dour introductory bon mot, the villain twists one of that philosopher's most-quoted lines: "Whatever doesn't kill you, just makes you... stranger." Later, the Joker professes his affinity for Batman as his necessary alter ego, implicitly evoking another notable Nietzschean epigram: "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster."

The director and his brother, co-scripter Jonathan Nolan, may have spent many hours thumbing their copies of Beyond Good and Evil. It's probably inadvertent, however, that their Dark Knight also evokes another Teutonic provocateur: Michael Haneke. Americans recoiled from Haneke's English-language remake of his Funny Games, in which two jokey psychopaths torture and ultimately murder a vacationing family. Yet Haneke's killers, who call themselves Paul and Peter, are spiritual cousins of Nolan's villain, even if they wear crisp tennis whites while the Joker sports the smeared, cracked makeup and taste for "an-ar-chyyyy" of a Sex Pistols hanger-on.

The key is the way that both Paul, the duo's spokesman, and the Joker mock the very idea of motivation. Each recounts childhood traumas that "explain" his aberrant behavior, only to later offer entirely different tales. Psychology is for chumps, Paul and the Joker agree; all that matters is the game, whose prize is usually death. That's American entertainment, Haneke argued. Many American film critics rushed to disagree, yet Nolan's movie supports Haneke's broadside. The Dark Knight belongs to the Joker, a sadist who embodies Hollywood at its worst: He slays for amusement, his own but also ours, and laughs at the people who presume he needs a better reason than fun. (2008, 152 min; at the Uptown and all those multiplexes.)

ROMAN POLANSKI IS A RAPIST, and yet he was also a victim of the judicial travesty that followed his "unlawful sexual intercourse" -- that's the crime he acknowledged in the plea bargain -- with a 13-year-old girl. The latter revelation is the principal reason for ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED, which has little to say about the Polish-born director but much about the 1977-78 case. Polanski, of course, ultimately fled to France, and is still officially a fugitive from American justice. What Marina Zenovich's documentary shows is that the filmmaker is a really a fugitive from one man, Judge Laurence J. Rittenband.

Polanski, who prepped victim Samantha Geimer with champagne and one-third of a Quaalude, got lucky when the girl's family decided to spare her a trial. But his good fortune didn't extend to the choice of judge. Rittenband was a publicity hound who courted the press, flouted procedure, and ultimately broke the law, agree both Polanski's defense attorney and the prosecutor, as well as other firsthand observers. It was only after his lawyer told him that Rittenband was untrustworthy that Polanski left the country, ostensibly to work on Hurricane (a film he ultimately did not direct). Rittenband died in 1994, and this film has inspired a move to finally untangle the case.

Now married and a mother, the long-anonymous Samantha Geimer appears on camera. She doesn't express any grudge, and suggests that Polanski's flight was justified. Her attacker, meanwhile, is seen mostly in archival footage, including clips from his films in which he played roles. In a rambling, informal recent interview, Polanski admits to a taste for "young women," but doesn't seriously discuss what he did to Geimer. Zenovich links the rape to Polanski's dire personal history and the themes of his movies, but the effort often seems superficial. (A one point, the director inserts a scene of Mia Farrow's answering the phone in Rosemary's Baby just because the narrative at that point involves a phone call.) As a psychoanalysis of its character, Zenovich's movie just skims the surface. But as a study of how the American legal system can fail both defendant and plaintiff, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired is an almost Polanski-worthy thriller. (2008; 99 min; at American Film Institute Silver Theater