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In the Cineplex, is It a Dark and Stormy Night?

July 25, 2008

By Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

Jul. 25–This summer, in terrific films and craven ones, violence threatens the populace. Why should this season be any different? Think of the Joker, fomenting terrorism and nerve-racking pathology in “The Dark Knight” (terrific). Think of Angelina Jolie slaughtering all those deserving losers, or James McAvoy shooting the wings off a fly in gargantuan computer-generated close-up, in “Wanted” (craven). Think of Pierce Brosnan slaughtering “SOS” in “Mamma Mia!”

Now that “The Dark Knight” is on its way toward sleek Goth superstardom and enormous profits, it’s a good time to note that not everyone is in love with its nightmarish vision of a world without order. There are those who find its aura of foreboding and free-floating menace, spiked with some outre acts of sadism (the Joker’s disappearing-pencil bit, over in an eye-blink but striking nonetheless), too much for the comic-book genre, too much for the “Batman” franchise, too much period.

It’s certainly too much for kids under a certain age. Eleven? Twelve? Or 13, as suggested, in its unenforceable, just-a-thought way, by the PG-13 rating?

The decision is personal. All I can do is suggest you be careful with this one, though on one of the Tribune comment boards, Tom from Libertyville shot back: “How can you say it’s not for my kids? Stick to parenting your own children and stop siding with the ratings board.”

For the record, it’s a rare day I side with the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board on anything, because its priorities and standards strike me as semi-reliably insane. (In general: criminally easy on violence, puritanically restrictive on nudity and language.) I love it that “Hostel: Part II” and “Once” both received R ratings, when the latter clearly should’ve been PG-13, and the former should’ve been rated Y or Z, let alone X.

Back to “The Dark Knight,” a film that is not perfect, but that seems to me (after one viewing) to have a certain measure of seriousness (especially for a franchise blockbuster) in framing and dramatizing its acts of violence–plentiful–without the usual stoking of the audience’s blood lust. Here’s what I don’t get. I don’t get how some folks, including David Edelstein, the first-rate film critic for New York magazine, can rave up an Xbox melee such as “Wanted,” yet characterize “The Dark Knight” as “sadistic.” David Denby of The New Yorker felt that “The Dark Knight” was sending hordes out of the theaters with “post-movie stress disorder.” Compared with “Wanted”? I suppose the nutty jocularity of all the bone-crunching, brain-splattering antics of “Wanted” takes the sting out of the effect. The “kills” are the point of the film. Yet I felt lousy after seeing it, numb and sour. “Wanted” is well made and, within its narrow parameters, well acted. But I couldn’t care less about it, even as pure, brainless diversion. I came out of “The Dark Knight” unsettled but engaged.

Every film containing violence has to figure a few things out about tone, stylization, impact. If the action sequences in a movie such as “Get Smart” or “Hancock” are directed like a routine R-rated thriller, does that add to the experience? (I say no.)

I want to hear from you. If you’ve seen “The Dark Knight” and/or “Wanted,” for starters, does the violence “work” for you? Hit the blog at chicagotribune.com/talkingpictures or e-mail me. And if we’re lucky, we can continue this discussion without resorting to violence.

Through mid-August Michael Phillips will co-host “At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper,” airing at 11:05 p.m. Sat. and 10:30 a.m. Sun. on WLS-Ch. 7.

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