Film Friday: ‘Dark Knight’ & ‘Mama Mia!’

by W. Andrew Powell

The Dark Knight

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight

One of the year’s biggest films arrives this week with the debut of The Dark Knight, starring Heath Ledger as the insane Joker. Also arriving this week is the musical comedy Mamma Mia!, a trio of farcical animated simians in Space Chimps, and the documentary Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.

The Dark Knight
After so many years of ridiculous Batman sequels, it is nearly impossible to recognize the Batman of the 1990s in The Dark Knight. And let me just say, that is a huge relief.

With Christopher Nolan‘s reboot of the franchise in 2005, Batman Begins reinvigorated one of comic-doms greatest heroes, with a depth and understanding of the character that gave Batman and Bruce Wayne new ground to explore. But even after that film, The Dark Knight has gone much further, taking the mood of the entire Batman universe, and giving it a place to live on the big screen.

The Dark Knight opens with the long-awaited appearance of the Joker, played by Heath Ledger, in the midst of a bank robbery. Acting as an agent of chaos, as he puts it, the Joker has a plan to bring Gotham to its knees in a bid to help the mob keep its dirty money out of the hands of The Batman. Meanwhile, Harvey Dent, played by Aaron Eckhart, is trying to work with the police to put the mob behind bars, and that dirty money would go a long way to locking a majority of those criminals up for years.

Christian Bale returns as our caped crusader, but this time out he has to deal with copy cats who are out on the street trying to help him fight crime. He also has to face the reality that Rachel Dawes, played this time around by Maggie Gyllenhaal, has moved on and is now with Harvey Dent. Complicating matters is the fact that Bruce also envisions Harvey as Gotham’s true savior, a good man who can show his face to the city, while protecting people from the criminals. But the biggest problem will be making sure the Joker doesn’t ruin all of that.

While Bale certainly continues admirably in The Dark Knight, rumbling through his scenes with force, wit, and his usual charm, Ledger’s rendition of the Joker is a frenetic force to be reckoned with, and he owns every scene he inhabits.

It speaks volumes about Ledger and the way he dove into this character that the Joker doesn’t even need to say much to get a lot across. The camera lingers on Ledger’s face in nearly every scene, and you can see him forming every sentence like he is stabbing someone with each vowel. It’s a stunning performance, dark and brooding, but amazingly funny at the same time, and as Ledger’s last role in life, it will inevitably be his most remembered.

Aside from our hero and our villain epically facing off as distorted mirror images of each other, Nolan jumbles things a little in The Dark Knight. It is not as focused as Batman Begins, but it is far more fulfilling, with a much more layered storyline. With Michael Caine as Alfred, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and of course Oldman disappearing into the role of Lt. Gordon, there is also not a bad scene to be had from any of the brilliant supporting cast. Eckhart does stand out though with his role as the city’s White Knight, but the story is really held together by the struggle between Ledger and Bale.

Easily the year’s best film so far, and one of the most compelling comic book adaptations ever made.

Mamma Mia!
For the Abba fans out there, Meryl Streep stars in the film adaptation of the stage hit Mamma Mia! With Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård in the roles of the three men she once loved, Streep is Donna, a single mother who has raised her daughter by herself. But Sophie, played by Amanda Seyfried, is about to get married and wants to meet her father. The only trouble is, she’s not really sure who it might have been since her mother was with three guys when she got pregnant, so she invites all three men to her wedding.

Bringing together some of Abba’s greatest hits, the musical was a hit on stage, but apparently the film adaptation does little to bring the story to life. Ella Taylor of L.A. Weekly called the film “A collection of droopy ditties draped around a threadbare plot,” while many critics are giving it failing grades.

Space Chimps
In this animated film, three chimps are sent through a black hole to a planet on the other end of the galaxy, but when they end up stuck on a planet, they have to find a way to overthrow an evil dictator, and escape back home.

“While candy-colored graphics should dazzle kids,” Adam Markovitz of Entertainment Weekly said in his review, “Space Chimps has little draw for audiences spoiled by the Pixar-given knowledge that CGI can entertain – and not just stupefy – moviegoers of any age.”

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson
Last of all this week, opening in a limited number of cinemas is the documentary on the life of famed, notorious journalist Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. Critics are hailing the film as a success, which captures Thompson’s character and style.

“While the evidence of his spotty post-1970s work is hard to refute,” Jim Ridley of the Village Voice wrote, “Gonzo proves what a vapid, overvalued commodity edginess is, championing Thompson’s best work for brass-tacks insight more than brass-balled outrage.”

Film Friday is a weekly syndicated column produced by The GATE for print and online about the latest new arrivals coming to cinemas, with reviews, or a look at the critical consensus on each movie.

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