Knight at the Movies Archives
Comic Book movies get dark, Meryl sings at last
When you pen a movie review column titled "Knight at the Movies" you naturally root for any film that shares a part of your
moniker. That I was predisposed to fall for The Dark Knight might therefore seem a given but even I didn’t think I’d fall this hard. Is
it going too far to call The Dark Knight not just the best blockbuster of the ’08 summer season but also one of the best films of
the year? Still not enough praise perhaps? How about one of the best action blockbusters of all time? We’re talking 30 plus years
of movie monoliths here – everything from Jaws to the Star Wars saga to Titanic and Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park and Aliens and
Independence Day. In the rock-em-sock-em category this is one movie champion that certainly is going to obliterate its opponents
for weeks, maybe months to come. And in this age of the here and gone, one weekend movie blitz that is high praise indeed. I
hasten to add that my superlatives are based on screening the Imax version of the film and I suggest the second you're done
reading you head down to the nearest Imax and get in line.
But as Meryl Streep exclaimed in a particularly amusing moment in Death Becomes Her, “Now a warning?!” Yes – even as you take in
the dark delights that director and co-screenwriter (along with brother Jonathan) that Christopher Nolan has cooked up – be aware
that this blockbuster is one that comes with a price. Transformers was kid stuff. The Dark Knight is for adults. It’s much grittier,
tougher, more muscular than scores of other action pictures. And it’s also meaner, more unsettling and just plain creepy. There’s
exhilaration in the spectacular action set pieces to be sure but Nolan doesn’t allow his audience to savor them, he moves quickly and
emotionally past them. The result is a movie that is as pitch black as its title. It’s a film that works on you psychologically at the
same time as its ramping up your senses and is as much of a downer as it is a thrill ride – a risky combination that Nolan is able to
pull off thanks to the tremendous performance by the late Heath Ledger as the villainous Joker. Like Iron Man, another great epic
thrill ride, the movie is elevated that much higher by Ledger’s acting.
The film begins where Batman Begins left off. The Joker’s calling card left as a warning to the Gotham City police leads to a daring
and brutal bank robbery in broad daylight. Ripping off a bank filled with mob money is only the opening assault for the Joker who
goes on to commit ever more audacious crimes. In crime infested Gotham City, a tussle over leadership of the rackets is going on
while Batman/Bruce Wayne (the brooding Christian Bale who just gets hotter with every passing movie) joins up with Lt. James
Gordon (Gary Oldman) and Harvey Dent the city’s new District Attorney (Aaron Eckhardt). Dent also just happens to be hot and
heavy with Bruce Wayne’s unsung love interest Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal taking over from Katie Holmes).
Having created the bat lair in the first installment Bruce Wayne is now interested in utilizing the resources of Wayne Enterprises to
come up with an arsenal of new high tech bat gear (including the spiffy new bat pod/motorcycle). Morgan Freeman returns as
science and mechanical genius Lucius Fox who modifies these nifty toys for Batman to take on the baddies. When it comes to
fighting crime in Gotham City however, no one seems to be sure who’s really on the level and who’s on the take though it’s clear that
a Chinese businessman is deeply involved with the mob’s money. The movie briefly shifts to Hong Kong (which looks almost as
breathtaking as Chicago which hasn’t look this good since The Fugitive) where Nolan stages one of the greatest, most jaw dropping
set pieces I’ve ever seen – and it happens in less than three minutes of screen time.
Nolan doesn’t dawdle – he moves as quickly as the caped crusader in staging one action sequence after another. Most of these
involve confrontations between Batman and the Joker and later, in a surprise twist, the appearance of another Batman villain, Two
Face. As noted Ledger does amazing, intricate work with this psychotic nut job. Where Jack Nicholson was an over the top cartoon (a
fun one to be sure) Ledger’s Joker is funny in only perverse ways and all the more terrifying because he has such tremendous
vitality. Ledger employs a weird, baby Ratzo Rizzo like Brooklynesque voice and relishes any chance to explain how he got his
permanent leering rictus as he edges his knife along his intended victim’s lips. At times there are, as expected, homoerotic
undercurrents in the character (and in his confrontations with Batman) and the messy clown makeup enforces this while adding to the
unease of Ledger’s fleshed out performance. This is a sado-masochistic villain as dreamed up by David Lynch and Ledger is so fun
(watch for the scene of him in drag in nurse’s uniform), so disturbing and twisted that his loss to the acting world is that much more
pronounced. The rest of the cast do fine work (especially Michael Caine who returns as Bruce Wayne’s nimble servant Alfred and
Eckhart as the earnest Harvey Dent) but it’s Ledger’s picture all the way.
As the film enters its second half some of the motives of the characters become a little muddled and here and there the picture
briefly goes a bit off the rails (the scenes focusing on the love triangle and its outcome especially) but Nolan, whose dominate
palette is midnight blue and brown, races on ahead. The picture never really lets up – even when things get quiet the music is
pulsating in the background and by the last scene I felt wrung out, my senses overloaded. I literally shook after the movie and the
unsteadiness had as much to do with the “ride” I’d been taken on as the dark emotional journey.
The Dark Knight is a sinister epic and a rare achievement in cinema – it’s a film that manages to turn its pulp, comic book source into
complex and thrilling art for the masses.
I’m old enough to remember the curious buzz that greeted the announcement back in the early 80s that Meryl Streep was going to
star in a film version of “Evita,” taking the role that Patti LuPone had triumphed in on Broadway. Meryl Streep? Certainly she could
act; had proven that over and over and she’d even sung a bit – an acapella version of “Amazing Grace” at the end of the 1981 film
Silkwood – but would she be able to handle the vocal gymnastics the “Evita” songs required? The question was never answered as
nothing happened with that announcement or a subsequent one in 1989 that Streep would sing the role in a film under Oliver
Stone's direction. That too never materialized. Instead, in 1990 Streep starred in Postcards from the Edge with Shirley MacLaine
where she finally did sing – a rousing country western song – “I’m Checkin’ Out” – at the conclusion of the movie. Streep’s
vocalizing, cushioned by an arrangement designed to disguise its reedy qualities and her acting chutzpah got great reviews and she
has sung off and on in her films ever since (her tongue in cheek “Me” in 1992’s Death Becomes Her is hilarious).
But even with the triumph that greeted her singing at the end of Postcards it was clear that Streep never could have handled the
difficult, vocally taxing “Evita” score (when it finally got made in 1996 she was too old for the role and it went to Madonna instead – a
mixed blessing). And it’s only now that Streep is belatedly appearing in her first screen musical, Mamma Mia! Instead of Webber
and Rice at their musical height, however, she gets the songs of Abba. But they are songs much friendlier to an untrained voice and
more likely to be welcomed by movie audiences at large.
Mamma Mia! – an adaptation of the unlikely Broadway hit - has taken as long to get to the screen, it seems, as Evita did. The movie
is lucky to have Streep, singing or not, in the title role and the rest of its amiable, what the hell cast as well for its extremely thin
conceit is only saved by these expert, willing performers, the residual good will still left in a few of the overly familiar Abba songs, the
movie’s sensual Greek isle setting, and a hot piece of male eye candy named Dominic Cooper (more on him and his spectacular abs
later). Mostly, Mamma Mia! the movie gets by on sheer exuberance; a barrage of gusto that throws itself on the good will of the
audience and rushes on before naysayers can kick any sand in its face. Your appreciation of it, I suspect, will strongly depend on
your mood and the enthusiasm of the audience members around you. Mine ebbed and flowed along with the waves crashing upon
the shores of the sunny locale.
The wafer thin story concerns the impending nuptials of perky Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) to Sky (the aforementioned Cooper). But
there’s a fly in the suntan lotion: Sophie wants her dad to walk her down the aisle only her free spirit mom Donna (Streep) has never
identified who the lucky gent is. But careless Donna has left her old diary lying around the rundown hotel resort she’s running and
Sophie has found out that it’s either Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) or Harry (Colin Firth). Sophie secretly invites all
three to the island for the wedding and they arrive just after Sophie’s gal pals and her mother’s two oldest friends. Donna’s
girlfriends Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski) are funny, bawdy and quickly loosen up Donna who has become a
tad uptight in her upper middle age.
Apparently Donna and the her girlfriends used to be a trio version of the Banger Sisters but now Donna’s hippie-tie-dyed-free love
past has caught up with her. Soon everyone is singing and dancing the familiar Abba tunes all over the island – on the beach, in the
water, on the roof of the hotel, up and down the tiny streets of the village, etc. – and welding them onto the plot: Which dad will walk
Sophie down the aisle? Which dad will once again win Donna’s heart? Which dad will get the leftover? Which bartender will catch the
eye of the older but still sexy Tanya? How many shades of blue will the art director be able to come up with? And in how many
scenes will we get to savor Sky’s shirtless torso?
Lesbian director Phyllidia Lloyd makes her film debut, shepherding her baby from stage to screen (along with her two other female
co-creators). Not having seen the stage version of the show I can’t say how well it worked there but the screen version is dreadfully
shot and haphazardly staged at best (though the stunning Greek isle location helps tremendously). Lloyd does manage to get an
infectious rhythm going in some of the songs, especially the chorus numbers, Streep looks fantastic with her blonde highlights and
tan as do the rest of the cast and though she seems strapped in by the silly material she gets laughs here and there and real
feeling into the ballad she sings to the daughter (the endless 11 o’clock number, “The Winner Takes It All” is another story). Firth is
droll and funny and has the best voice of the elders in the cast (the others just squeak by), Walters delivers an energetic “Take a
Chance on Me,” and the movie even delivers a nice gay twist at the end.
Even with the gay twist and the free love stuff however, Mamma Mia! is old fashioned fluff and most closely resembles the old Annette
and Frankie beach party movies (it also has the same thrown together look and feel). Those movies got by on their sheer energy
and good will, too and like them Mamma Mia! is best seen once and then put into the mental beach bag for storage until nostalgia
comes calling again.
Loved Him, Liked Her:
The Dark Knight-Mamma Mia!
Expanded Edition of 7-16 & 7-18-08 Knight at the Movies Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.