The Dark Knight, Mamma Mia!

A comic book masterpiece & a miscast musical in cinemas from 7.8.08

Reviews by Jason Pirodsky

A blockbuster masterpiece that lives up to – and surpasses – almost impossible expectations, Christopher Nolan´s The Dark Knight is, perhaps, the first film to truly transcend the genre trappings of a comic-book movie and give us a legitimate piece of visionary cinema. This is, yes, a movie that features a man in a rubber bat suit chasing after a man wearing clown makeup, but this isn´t at all a movie about those characters; they´re mere metaphors in Nolan´s structural descendent of Heat (a connection that the director acknowledges) that serve to create a view of humanity as pitch-black and stark as Blade Runner or Taxi Driver. The 1966 Adam West-starring Batman: The Movie (and to a lesser extent, the TV series that aired at the same time) was a brilliant satire that viciously lampooned the very idea of grown men running around like this, and has influenced almost every superhero movie since then (even the best, Superman or Spider-Man 2 or this year´s Iron Man, have always had that wink-wink, don´t-take-us-too-seriously mentality.) The Dark Knight is the very first antithesis of this; Nolan´s rigid adherence to realism has produced a superhero movie as serious and scary as any other non-genre film.

The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan. Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Monique Curnen, Ron Dean, Cillian Murphy, Chin Han, Nestor Carbonell, Eric Roberts, Ritchie Coster, Anthony Michael Hall, Keith Szarabajka, Colin McFarlane, Joshua Harto, Melinda McGraw, Nathan Gamble, Michael Jai White, William Fichtner. Written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, story by Christopher Nolan &  David S. Goyer, from characters created by Bob Kane.
IMDb link

We pick up right where Nolan´s Batman Begins left off, quite literally for those who recall the foreshadowing at the end of the previous film. There´s a maniac robbing banks (The Joker, played brilliantly by Heath Ledger), and there are a variety of ineffective Batman-inspired vigilantes running around town, but of more concern to the real Batman (Christian Bale) is the continuing stronghold the mafia has been able to maintain over Gotham. Despite putting Carmine Falcone away in the previous film, several others have popped up in his place, including the arrogant Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts). A new district attorney, however, inspires hope in Bruce Wayne and other citizens: ‘White Knight´ Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) promises to clean up the city and rid Gotham of the mafia influence. After a mafia accountant transports all of Gotham´s mob money overseas, Batman vows to bring him back to have Dent and police chief Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) make him sing. But when the pressure exerted on the mafia becomes too great, they turn to The Joker, a man who they do not understand, and there´s no going back.

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A lot has been and will be said about Ledger´s performance as the Joker; the actor is nothing short of phenomenal, completely disappearing into what should be a showy, scenery-chewing role and re-creating the character in a way that Jack Nicholson was incapable of in Tim Burton’s 1989 film (as good as Nicholson is, his Joker was still all Nicholson). Aided by writing that wisely chooses to ignore any origin or backstory, the Joker is simply evil incarnate, an agent of chaos, and Ledger has created the most memorable and terrifying screen villain since Anthony Hopkins´ Hannibal Lector. He´s so good that, for the duration of the film, the thought the actor was no longer with us had never entered my mind. Of course, that fact is devastating in retrospect. Towards the end of the film, Ledger´s Joker says something to Batman along the lines of “you and I are fated to do this forever”, a line that perfectly summarizes the relationship between the two (as well as any superhero and arch-villain); it´s all too sad that the line cannot live beyond the boundaries of cinema, and within those boundaries – I´m not sure how long it will be before we see another screen Joker, but no actor will be able to sufficiently replace Ledger in the role.

While Ledger´s performance overshadows the rest of the cast – and this is, really, The Joker´s film – other performances are equally good. Eckhart is outstanding as Dent, the embodiment of Gotham´s ‘White Knight´, all-good and something that goes tragically beyond. While Bale won´t receive much acclaim, he´s excellent as Bruce Wayne and Batman, a more grizzled and world-weary hero than we saw in Batman Begins. Returning characters all seem to carry more weight here than they did in the previous film: Oldman´s Gordon, Michael Caine´s Alfred, Morgan Freeman´s Lucius Fox, and Maggie Gyllenhaal (replacing Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes) all get their moments to shine here, and shine they do.

This is a real achievement for Nolan; not only has he done something special in the comic book universe, but it´s one hell of a ride. Compelling all the way through, this a riveting crime tale told with all the urgency of Michael Mann or William Friedkin at their best. Cinematography perfectly creates a real-world Gotham; most of the exteriors were shot in Chicago, but you´ll never doubt that this Gotham isn´t a living, breathing city that exists somewhere out there. Nolan´s Batman Begins was a good-enough origin tale but The Dark Knight is something else entirely.

Music by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer is outstanding; gone is any kind of recognizable Danny Elfman-like theme, instead we´re propelled through the film by an electrifying, pulsating score that demands that we pay attention to the screen (the electronic, Kraftwerk-inspired Joker theme that opens the film and reappears throughout is best of all).

While this isn´t a perfect film, it is a near-perfect one. The only real flaw that I can harp on is dialogue that’s repeated and sometimes overstated in an effort to hammer home every point. I also cannot say I was completely satisfied by the ending, but the film is so good up to that point I´m willing to grant the director the benefit of the doubt (and unlike something like There Will Be Blood, there´s no audience-splitting 180-degree shift in style here). Dark, grim, and unrelenting, this isn´t a film that everyone can enjoy, but I do think that most will appreciate. It´s a masterpiece, and does for the comic-book film what something like Blade Runner did for sci-fi.


Mamma Mia!
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Starring Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Dominic Cooper, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Rachel McDowall, Ashley Lilley. Written by Catherine Johnson.
IMDb link

You couldn´t get further away from The Dark Knight than Phyllida Lloyd´s Mamma Mia!, an embarrassingly miscast musical akin to a Beach Blanket Bingo flick that has had all the fun drained out of it by the presence of A-list actors. ABBA´s music can be plenty fun, and Mamma Mia! has fleeting, all-too-brief glimpses of that fun. But Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and co. don´t really sing here; they tend to dictate the lyrics to us as if they had some greater meaning, warbling away like William Shatner minus the irony, and draining any entertainment value from the airy ABBA songs. The result: musical torture the likes of which hasn´t been seen since Paint Your Wagon or Camelot; prepare for Brosnan´s garbled version of S.O.S. to reach internet meme status on a level only previously explored by Shatner or David Hasselhoff. And hey, why wait; here you go.

Amanda Seyfried stars as Sophie, a young woman about to marry fiancée Sky (Dominic Cooper) at her mother´s dilapidated hotel on a Greek island. She only has one regret: she´s never known her father. In an effort to find him, she invites the three men her mother was with around the time of her conception to the wedding, with the hopes to identify her true father through a nonstop parade of ABBA songs. There´s your plot, no twists, no turns, nothing to really advance it beyond a single concept and the inevitable revelation at the end, and no points for guessing that ending, either. If you´re going to this film, I hope you love ABBA´s songs, and I hope you love when amateurs sing them. That´s what you´re getting here, in spades.

The first song we get is a rendition of I Have a Dream, sung by Seyfried to a pair of friends played by Rachel McDowall and Ashley Lilley, and I thought we´d be in for some good goofy fun. Seyfried is terrific, perfectly suited to this material, a little box of cute with wide puppy-dog eyes. McDowall and Lilley share her enthusiasm (as does Cooper, along with the rest of the young cast, relegated to extra status), the island scenery is great, and hey, we could have fun with this on some kind of Frankie & Annette level. But no; the two friends completely disappear from the film after that first song, as a parade of ‘proper’ actors are marched on in: Meryl Streep as the mother, Julie Walters and Christine Baranski as her friends, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgård as the father candidates. None of whom can sing, of course, and of course, the film lets them sing away for the rest of the movie, pushing the young, spirited cast to background scenery.

Brosnan is ridiculous, but the worst offenders are Walters and Baranski – I´m sorry, but Baranski is a dead ringer for The Goddess Bunny here – and the film is run into the ground with bad rendition after bad rendition. Firth, perhaps, fares best, as he and Skarsgård have a mercifully light workload (the light workload cannot save Skarsgård, however). Streep is the most vocally talented, but she´s still completely unsuited to this material, and she knows it and looks embarrassed throughout. And we feel the same way.

And yet, while I cannot enjoy this film I can enjoy the existence of it on some perverse level. Go in with the right frame of mind and I dare say you´ll be entertained.

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