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Take him seriously: Ledger in The Dark Knight.

Gargoyles and Clowns

By Shawn Stone

The Dark Knight

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Batman has problems. Some are mundane, like the second-rate, shotgun-wielding imitators in cheap rubber suits that wander Gotham at night, causing him big bat-headaches. Other problems he’s just beginning to grasp, such as: How can he be both a vigilante and a hero in a democracy?

Christian Bale, returning as Batman, embodies the cockiness of a billionaire-turned-superhero who really would prefer to avoid the question. Heath Ledger’s Joker, a nightmarish mirror to the Batman, will not let him avoid it. If the last film, Batman Begins, was about the process of hammering a playboy into an avenging gargoyle, The Dark Knight is about that gargoyle facing the worst of what he’s become—and realizing the steep personal price he paid, and will continue to pay, for it.

The Joker is the wild heart of the story. As he enters the scene, Gotham’s mobsters, though not completely out of the fight, have been knocked on the ropes by Batman. It is the Joker’s intention to turn this situation to his advantage; he proves to be both a brilliant criminal tactician and an untamable nihilist. Neither the mob nor Batman take him seriously at first (he’s a badly scarred lone nut in smeary clown makeup, after all), and this allows the Joker to outmaneuver both sides of the law. The result is insulting mayhem on an epic scale, because everything the Joker believes is a mockery—at times a delicious parody—of what Batman stands for.

Ledger has the film in his pocket from the moment he pulls out a pencil and performs a really nasty magic trick with it for the edification of Gotham’s mob bosses. He’s manic, spastic, funny, vicious and terrifying. His Joker is full of surprises, each more nasty than the last—topped only by the levels of depravity and wit Ledger finds in the character, right up to his final moments, laughing hysterically as Gotham’s soul hangs in the balance.

It’s not that Bale isn’t effective or doesn’t have equal screen time, it’s just he has to spend so much of it in that damn suit, glowering and grunting. (Note to Bale’s agent: Be sure they include more Bruce Wayne scenes next time.) Aaron Eckhart fares better as all-American, shining hero district attorney Harvey Dent. (He’s the film’s “white knight.” Yes, Batman actually says that out loud, one of many idiot lines the otherwise excellent screenplay could have done without.) It’s not giving anything away to note that Dent undergoes a horrific physical and spiritual transformation, which Eckhart conveys well.

Director and cowriter Christopher Nolan has done a brilliant job turning a crypto- fascist comic book into something much more. The film is a complex reflection of the uncertainties of our time, with its references to terrorism and homeland security right up front, for good or ill.

In the end, The Dark Knight is as bleak as a popular movie can probably get away with, if not as bleak as it should have been: The resolution of the film’s two climactic moral dilemmas are unconvincing. Still, it’s hard to imagine anything more depressing than a world in which a multibillionaire feels like he has to don a cowl and cape to get what he wants.

Sing Out, Sisters

Mamma Mia!

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

If you don’t like Abba, then you probably should stay away from Mamma Mia!, the musical that has as many Abba songs as an Abba greatest hits album. And if you don’t like Abba, why not? Allergic to infectious hooks and melodies?

As conceived by stage producer Judy Craymer, writer Catherine Johnson and director Phyllida Lloyd, the show is a celebration of all things female—or at least girly. On the eve of her wedding, perky 20-year-old Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) reveals that she has invited three men who might be her dad (Stellan Skarsgård, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth) to the ceremony. Seems that Donna, her mom (Meryl Streep), had flings with each fellow 20 summers ago, confiding this info only to her diary (which Sophie unearthed). Sophie declines to let mom in on the surprise—it’s a musical comedy, duh—and when everyone meets at mom’s run-down hotel on a beautiful Greek island, all PG-13 heck breaks loose.

With everyone breaking into song at the least opportunity, there are some highlights. Streep proves to have a pleasing voice, and throws herself into her best numbers, “Mamma Mia” and “The Winner Takes It All,” with abandon. Julie Walters and Skarsgård team up for an amusing “Take a Chance on Me.” But it’s Christine Baranski who delivers the film’s true showstopper, as a man-hungry dame among boys in “Does Your Mother Know.”

It isn’t as dreadfully directed as I was led to expect, but it’s still a poor job by the show’s original stage helmer, Lloyd. In trying to cram as much of the gorgeous scenery as possible into the production numbers, her reach seems to have exceeded the budget’s grasp. It’s not that her ideas are all bad; she deserves credit for giving us a feel for the geography of Donna’s island. But too many shots don’t match, and too many shots are out of focus—presumably because retakes would have been too expensive. (It’s no surprise, then, that the studio-shot, end-credits versions of “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo” are so effective and well-received.)

That said, who’s left who can direct a screen musical? There aren’t enough musicals made for a body of knowledge to accumulate.

In the end, for all the film’s faults, I still enjoyed Mamma Mia! It’s a shiny celebration of innocence, with the 1930s-style plot—all lovers are reunited as if by magic—fitting the songs of Abba like a sequined glove. If Abba’s music was too sunny for America in the jaded 1970s, its hook-filled, unbridled catchiness is a lift for the doom-filled, uncertain aughts.

—Shawn Stone

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