him seriously: Ledger in The Dark Knight.
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.
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.