Dark Knight's brilliance not just for fans

Posted: Thursday, December 11, 2008

'The Dark Knight: Two-Disc Special Edition'

Even if they somehow haven't already seen it in theaters, Batman fans likely already know more than they need to know about "The Dark Knight." Whichever the case may be, their preorders are in the mail, and any ink "Knight" gets this week has zero value to them. So this is where the rest of you - whether you assume "Knight" is fodder for teenage boys or if you simply avoid comic book movies on instinct - come in. And here is what you may not know: You need not care one iota about superheroes, comic books or even Batman himself to absolutely love this movie anyway. "Knight" delivers as a work of fan service but it delivers just as powerfully as a smart, morally ambiguous criminal thriller starring characters who would be among the year's best even if they shed the costumes, washed off the makeup and called themselves Tom, Bill and Dave. "Knight" also proves, beyond doubt, that a first-rate thriller in 2008 need not lean on cheap violence and gore for the sake of it to actual thrill an audience. There are some brilliant action scenes and some stuff certainly goes boom, but it's the sheer brilliance of the script that takes this one to a plane few of its contemporaries even know exists.

'A Man Named Pearl'

When Pearl Fryar and his wife moved to Bishopville, S.C., and settled into an all-white neighborhood, assumptions about the character behind the color of his skin sent neighbors' imaginations into a frenzy, with some going so far as to peg Fryar as unfit to keep his own lawn from descending into ruin. Pearl's masterful response? Win the neighborhood's yard of the month award and leave no doubt. His method? Twenty-plus years of obsessive, self-taught topiary - creating living sculptures from trees and bushes - that transformed a backyard into a literal tourist attraction and put Bishopville on the map. The work of art Pearl unleashed is an achievement in its own right, but it's exponentially remarkable when "A Man Named Pearl" reveals how much formal training Fryar accrued before his undertaking began. "Pearl" is full of other pleasant surprises, but perhaps no development is more pleasant than a complete lack of the character conflict that always seems to disrupt documentaries like these. If you're the creative sort and/or if you find your ambitions in a rut, this one's a must-see.

'Man on Wire'

One must wonder what it would be like to watch "Man on Wire" - which documents Frenchman Philippe Petit's 1974 attempt to walk a tightrope between the World Trade Center's twin towers - had Sept. 11 never happened. Petit's and his cohorts' accounts of how a handful of foreigners and a few inside men gained unauthorized access to the towers, no matter how harmless the intention, can't help but carry an unsettling subtext, and there's really nothing anyone could do at this point to change that and still keep "Wire" honest. That said, it's this same subtext, despite "Wire's" not-quite refusal to even allude to it, that makes "Wire" considerably more transcendent and significant than it otherwise would be for most. And Petit's professed love of the towers, which bloomed before construction even began, makes "Wire" as much a love letter to the structures as a celebration of the fulfillment of a dream seemingly beyond possibility on numerous levels.

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