The counter-programming method of release this past weekend was interesting. The film for Men, Cinephiles, and Comic Book Fans, The Dark Knight, was of course expected to do much better than the film for Housewives, Theatre Fairies, and Nostalgic Boomers, Mamma Mia!. And Lord did it ever.
Yet both films were for me. A Batfan from birth, I had been looking forward to The Dark Knight since mid-way through Batman Begins. An ABBA fan since whenever ("Fernando" and "Gimme Gimme Gimme" were childhood favorites) and a lover of Meryl Streep, I actually eagerly awaited Mamma Mia! more than the Bat-flick. At first.
Fortunately, I was able to see both films this weekend, one right after the other.
THE DARK KNIGHT
Dear God, if ever there was a definitive adaptation of a comic book, this is it. It has to be. The "realistic" approach that began with the first film is improved upon here, with the Nolans creating a crime thriller that just happens to have a man in a bat-suit running about. Aided, perhaps, by its length, The Dark Knight is the first Batman movie to fully flesh out the hero and the villains without losing a story thread. (Remember Michael Keaton in Batman Returns? Nor do I.) The cast becomes a fully realized ensemble, with ample screen time for each character, all perfectly cast.
A significant scene shows Batman (Christian Bale) on a rooftop with Lieutenant Gordon (Gary Oldman) and new District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart). And here we have our leads. Oh, yes, there are a few surprises concerning these characters, and it would be wrong to suggest that the Joker (Heath Ledger) has a smaller role than these three, but these are your leads. They are the Moral Minority, as it were, and the film focuses on the downfall of that minority.
Gotham finally looks more like a real city than a soundstage--credit that to filming in Chicago, proving my Mother's theory that all great films take place there (Ferris Bueller, anyone?). The score composed by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer is suspenseful (the familiar themes from the previous film), inspiring (Dent's theme), and frightening (the Joker). The Batsuit is improved, Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox is developed, the structure is damn near flawless--it treats the comic book movie as a literary adaptation, and succeeds.
Yes, all that you have heard about Ledger is true. This is it, the greatest portrayal of the Joker put to film. With a slashed smile and chilling cackle, he's lost none of psychotic humor Jack Nicholson developed, but improves upon it. What we get is one of the greatest screen villains of our time. The man's damn funny, but you can't laugh because it's too disturbing.
It is Aaron Eckhart, though, who surprises and amazes as Harvey Dent/Two-Face. As I said: Batfan from birth. I'm usually just waiting for Dent's transformation to finally happen. But the Nolans script and Eckhart portrays Dent so sympathetically, so heroically, that I hoped that, perhaps, he didn't have to become Two-Face. He really is the White Knight of Gotham, and the armor shines through.
Christian Bale's Batman becomes more intimidating this time around. We get to see Jealous Bruce, as he becomes envious of Dent's relationship with Rachel Dawes (new and improved with Maggie Gyllenhaal). Sexy Bruce, as he does his billionaire schtick. Business Batman, throwing people off ledges so as to hurt them without killing them. Psychotic Batman, as he roughs up a suspect in an interrogation room. Clinically Insane Batman, as he resorts to questionable methods to find the Joker. Bale shines, and we get a more flawed and complicated version of the man we know as the "hero".
The Dark Knight is a treasure, the best film to come out so far this year. See it in IMAX--it's the best way to do it. I know. I've seen it twice now, in different formats. DO IMAX. ****
If you're coming to Mamma Mia! expecting the quality of, say, Hairspray or Moulin Rouge!, get the hell out. This isn't a bouncy musical that also happens to have an easily-relatable story. This is Mamma Mia!: it's a weak story with awesome ABBA tunes thrown into the mix. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is about to get married, but wants her father to walk her down the aisle. Unaware of who he is, she peeks into her Mom's (Meryl Streep) diary, finds the candidates, and invites them over. Hilarity ensues.
It's a musical, so the chief concern is the musical numbers. Well, they're a lot of fun. They're all ABBA songs, so only a few actually add anything to the story. But when they do, man, they hit it out of the park. Streep's "Slipping Through My Fingers" "The Winner Takes It All" almost make up for her ham-handed mugging during the majority of her prior scenes. Pierce Brosnan has a passable (not great) voice, but certainly knows how to deliver the emotion in "S.O.S." He joins Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard in a pleasant rendition of "Our Last Summer".
Speaking of Colin Firth, it is he who gives the best for the men. The best singer, the best dancer, the best actor, Firth takes center-stage, even if the shy banker he portrays doesn't. He is evenly matched by Christine Baranski, a hoot with her "Does Your Mother Know" number. But Julie Walters steals the show as Streep's other friend, a cookbook writer with a one-liner for every occasion. Just try to watch anyone else: it's IMPOSSIBLE. If you're not cheering by the time she belts "Take a Chance on Me" on a tabletop, you can't be watching the same movie. She's a spark of genuine life in a ensemble that tries too hard.
And that is the problem. Everyone is so eager to please. First-time director Phyllida Lloyd (who brought the show to the theatre), keeps that camera moving, leaving us unable to focus on the dancing queens that populate the screen. Streep and Seyfried overdo it, playing to the back row of the balcony while those of us watching their close-ups can only cringe. This is Sophie? This is Yolanda Johnson? Dominic Cooper has the opposite problem--he does not seem to be trying at all, though the character is also grossly underwritten. You'd think a movie about a wedding would focus at least a little bit on the groom.
But it is mindless fun, and it doesn't try to be anything else. The costumes are Fabulous (with a capital "F" decked in glitter), the Greek scenery gorgeous. It's dumb, it's a good time, it has to be seen to be believed. **1/2