Saturday, July 19, 2008


“Do I look like a man with a plan?”

This film very definitely has a plan. A big plan. It wants to be taken Very Very Seriously Indeed. THE DARK KNIGHT is a follow up to BATMAN BEGINS, Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the franchise that had previously been destroyed by Joel Shumacher’s appalling entries, BATMAN FOREVER and BATMAN AND ROBIN, the films that became notorious for adding nipples to the batsuit. Nolan’s chief contribution to the series is a labored High Moral Importance, as Batman/Bruce Wayne struggles, oh so mightily, to live up to his father’s memory and banish crime from Gotham City. BATMAN BEGINS had a lot of nonsense about an assassin squad known as the League Of Shadows and some nattering about history and the decline of the west, but mostly the film was an excuse for bludgeoning an audience senseless, delivering brutal violence while shaking a finger in your face for enjoying it. It set a bold standard for sheer self-righteousness, even muscling in a reference to one of Bruce Wayne’s ancestors having been involved in the Underground Railroad. It didn’t even deliver an interesting villain, just Liam Neeson spouting mutilated Lucasisms about how you must become fear to overcome fear. All in all, there’s more fun in Auschwitz footage.

THE DARK KNIGHT doesn’t exactly lighten the tone, the occasional daylight scene notwithstanding. The story is terribly busy, too busy. Batman has been cleaning up the organized crime in Gotham City, and the Mob is getting unhappy. The Joker offers to lend the mob a hand. Okay, but there’s a lot of other stuff involving District Attorney Harvey Dent, some Mafia High Finance and a wicked accountant who knows where the money is buried and it clunks and thuds along, never more pointlessly than during a completely expendable sidetrip to Hong Kong. There’s a girl in there too, Maggie Gyllenaal taking over for the chick from the previous one, but basically, you just sit there waiting for more of the Joker.

I loved Heath Ledger’s Joker. He’s very funny and very shocking, going for an unbridled sadism that is unique in this kind of film, where villains are all too often too coy to scare, much less perform lethal sleight of hand with pencils. This Joker is the real thing straight out of nightmareland. It’s an oversize performance, one that manages somehow to match the oversize pretensions of the rest of the film. He's the driving life force of the movie, the pulse and energy of the film much more so than all the stunts and CGI. All the explosions and gimmicks never once impress as much as the sight of the Joker standing in the middle of a Gotham City street daring Batman to run him down, knowing he won't. He's even got a wonderful moment leaning out of a car window in the early light, enjoying the wind in his green greasy hair, a la Fredric March's Mr. Hyde ecstatically drinking falling raindrops. Ledger is also, by the way, the only actor who manages to put over the overt speechifying that mars so much of the rest of the film. When the Joker monologues on his ideas of chaos, he speaks with a demented conviction that poor Michael Caine’s ceaseless pathetic prattling about What Batman Means can’t come near. Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart manage to make something of their roles, which is more than can be said for Morgan Freeman and Caine, neither of whom have broken a sweat in years: their performances are strictly by the numbers and for the paycheck.

Someone should alert the authorities about the block of wood passing itself off as Christian Bale, getting roles and collecting paychecks. Yeah, I know, Batman/Bruce is almost inevitably played as a stiff. Sometimes for laughs, as Adam West’s hilariously pompous goodytwoshoes, or as Psychologically Damaged Goods by Michael Keaton. But no one approaches Christian Bale’s performance for sheer inertness. He just sits there and broods, or stands there and broods, or broods there and broods. Boy does he brood. Brood brood brood. Brood Bruce, brood. I found it impossible to do anything other than root for the Joker, who at least shows some signs of life. This lack of energy on Bale's part, and the nailing home of each and every Serious Point, are the least welcome holdovers from the first film.

THE DARK KNIGHT does go to some lengths to try to show us that there is after all something in Gotham worth saving. BATMAN BEGINS’ Gotham was a charnel house, a vision of urban hell akin to those in BLADE RUNNER and SEVEN, and it is hard to imagine why anyone would want to save it from the Joker’s chaotic demolition performance pieces much less actually live there. This at least partially explains the glimmers of hope that are shoe-horned into the plot, some bits of faith in simple human decency that were completely missing from DARK KNIGHT’s Bleak Chic prequel.

I can’t say I liked the film very much, except as a vehicle for Ledger’s Joker. I think I’ve finally outgrown this Batman stuff, except for Burton’s BATMAN RETURNS, to me still the only Batman film worth seeing, to watch Michelle Pfeiffer deliver probably the greatest performance by an actress in 90s Hollywood Cinema. It never gets stale, unlike the strained seriousness of Nolan’s movies, which fade from the memory almost immediately. They can do the inevitable follow up to THE DARK KNIGHT without me. Unless of course, they find something really interesting to do with Catwoman. Ha. Yeah, right. Not with this joyless batch of filmmakers.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


A Supposedly Fun Film I'll Never See Again

MAMMA MIA is a musical play that takes the songs of ABBA and plugs them into a story line. Simple enough, right? The story isn't much: a Girl lives on a Greek Island with her Mother. The Girl wants to marry her Shirtless Boyfriend, but wants her Father to attend the wedding. She doesn't know who her Father is, because her Mother isn't entirely sure who the Father was. So the Girl, unbeknownst to her Mother, sends invitations to the three most likely candidates, and FUN ensues. That's the plan, anyway. On Broadway, a certain degree of FUN did ensue. The show was mostly charming, it didn't take itself too terribly seriously (one poor actor had to sing ABBA's song SOS as if it was a serious relationship song and came off looking rather foolish) but hey it was over mostly painlessly. I didn't want to hunt down and kill everyone associated with it. And compared with others that have come since, like GOOD VIBRATIONS, MAMMA MIA comes off like PRIVATE LIVES.
So now there's a movie, with Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Stellan Skarsgard. A really good cast, by any standard. So what goes wrong?

The material is so incredibly feather light that everybody seems to work harder than they've ever worked before to keep it light. The vastly over-qualified cast seems so afraid of coming off as too good for the movie that they all over compensate: they play the FUN with a seriousness that quashes the fun entirely, and the SERIOUS moments are played with a level of honesty that the material just can't bear. The fun-induced panic that hovers around Meryl Streep is particularly oppressive: America's Dowager Actress Goddess lays it on like a CEO at an office picnic glad-handing the janitors. She hasn't worked this hard since SOPHIE'S CHOICE. And nobody else fares any better: the usually magnificent Julie Walters at one point steps into a small dinghy, and of course falls off into the water, but the process by which she loses her balance and falls in is so blatant and overdone that any slight amusement I might feel is quickly stifled. It becomes kind of a metaphor for the entire film: what should be effortless as falling off a boat becomes labored and obvious, too much damn work.

I could go on about the disparity between the obvious location shooting and the obviously studio-shot scenes, and Pierce Brosnan's really appalling attempts at singing (a male Marni Nixon was direly needed here). But I won't bother. I feel like I'm kicking a puppy here. An obnoxiously overcute puppy.

Monday, July 14, 2008


"If I was retarded and grew up on a farm, it would impress me. But I wasn't, and it doesn't."

I saw a movie many years ago a first film that I thought showed great promise, about a group of criminals preparing to execute a heist. It was a fascinating movie, filled with very fine acting, a great twisty story, and a fine bitter aftertaste: it really felt like it was on to something about the real darkness lurking in the crime film genre. The movie was called RESERVOIR DOGS, and I couldn't wait to see what the director/writer would do next. Since then, of course, Quentin Tarantino hasn't really progressed: the genuine darkness of DOGS was replaced with the smirking hipness of PULP FICTION and the flat-out silliness of the KILL BILL diptych. Crime films in general have taken a decided turn for the worse post-PULP FICTION, all hip slick attitude and narrative gamesmanship: it took Steven Soderbergh to restore humanity to the mix with OUT OF SIGHT, a movie that seems to have slipped from the general radar.

Tarantino only comes to my mind these days when I see the work of Martin McDonagh, an Irish playwright and now filmmaker whose work I am becoming helplessly addicted to. McDonagh's play THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE is shocking and hilarious and vastly entertaining on the subject of the sheer stupidity of violence and the violent, exactly the kind of work I was expecting from the Tarantino of RESERVOIR DOGS. I saw LIEUTENANT twice on Broadway and started kicking myself for having missed his earlier work like THE PILLOWMAN. When I heard McDonagh was making a feature film, I started counting the days.

And it was worth the wait. Martin McDonagh's IN BRUGES is a fascinating little movie that managed to slip through the cracks when it was released earlier this year. It tells the story of two hitmen played by Brendan Gleason and Colin Farrell who are on holiday in Bruges. Gleason wants to sightsee, and Farrell wants to do anything but. There's a good deal of very entertaining bickering, Gleason and Farrell playing beatifully off of each other. It gradually surfaces that Farrell is dealing with a significant burden of guilt over a hit that went hideously wrong. It isn't long before a phone call comes from their boss (played by Ralph Fiennes with all the vicious madness that is so sorely lacking in his Voldemort) with some instructions. There's some fun involving a film being shot on location, too.

A reasonably alert audience member could probably forecast a good deal of what comes after, but McDonagh keeps the story lively and the talk livelier. There's a certain leisure to the storytelling that might keep folks wondering what the hell is going on, but this isn't a tightly constructed heist flick. These guys are on vacation, they're taking stock of their lives and aren't exactly happy with what they find. The action might slow down a bit here and there, but it does so in the interest of good old fashioned character development, in showing me who these people are and why they are doing what they are doing. I found it irresistible and even moving.

A cool little movie. I can't wait for McDonagh's next work. I'm counting, starting now.