The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

This Week in Film: 7-18-08

Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic

A lunatic takes Gotham hostage, ABBA takes over the big screen, and a scenic train ride goes awry.

The Dark Knight

Image SPOILER WARNING – Editor's note: If you'd like to avoid even minor spoilers, skip the last paragraph of this review.

The Dark Knight can only be described as The Godfather of superhero movies. I do not write that line without cringing a little bit because I don’t want people to think that I put the film on that pedestal. It belongs to a genre that I don’t particularly love while the film I compare it to does. Also only time will tell us about the staying power of the film but I can tell you on first viewing that it is an intense work of art that transcends its genre. It is dark, and when I say dark I’m not talking simply about a superficial look or feel that the film has, but that it looks deep into the human soul and sometimes doesn’t like what it sees. You will hear much about Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker and because of this as well as the films trailer you might assume that it is larger than life, but it is not. Ledger underplays his role as the psychotic villain, turning a character that Jack Nicholson played as a manic lunatic into a sad, deeply scarred man who’s obsession with creating chaos and causing death doesn’t give him feelings of joy at all, in fact there is no emotional release, just emptiness and the need to create more of the same. Ledger internalizes his characters sick anguish and while we may want to laugh at his absurd ticks and mannerisms he never really allows us to. It is truly a performance for the ages.

As directed by Christopher Nolan and written by himself and Jonathan Nolan, The Dark Knight is a multi-layered epic that has so much more to say than most films let alone those in the comic book genre. Christian Bale is once again Bruce Wayne, the multi-billionaire bachelor who along with his faithful butler and confidant Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine) runs the Batman side of the business while Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) helps Wayne run the “legit” side, that being Bruce Wayne Enterprises. Gary Oldman is Lt. James Gordon, who is always trying to play both sides of the equation in Gotham, upholding the law as a policeman while also relying on Batman to take help out. The new District Attorney in town is Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and he wants to totally clean up Gotham, starting with mafia boss Salvatore Maroni (Eric Roberts). Using this as an opportunity to wreak havoc on Gotham, The Joker gets involved by telling Maroni that he will “kill the Batman” for him. But this Joker has much more in mind and it includes all of Batman’s allies including his old flame Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal).

It is the Joker’s Machiavellian shenanigans that drive the plot of The Dark Knight. As Alfred says to Bruce Wayne, “There are some people who just want to see the world burn.” The Joker doesn’t only want to see Gotham burn but he wants to see its inhabitants emotionally and psychologically tortured in the process, including Batman. There are so many dramatic developments in The Dark Knight that I couldn’t even begin to give much of it away even if I wanted to. To say that it’s dramatically overwhelming would be an understatement but that’s a compliment. It would take several viewings to truly appreciate all of its layers and complexities and in this regard I can compare it The Godfather films as I still see things that I didn’t notice before each time I watch them.

From our fears regarding terrorism on our soil to illegal electronic surveillance to two-faced politicians, The Dark Knight takes characters that we’ve seen before and places them in an urban nightmare that’s as ambitious as anything I’ve seen in a long time. It puts its characters through the ringer and in Nolan’s world nobody is safe, not even Batman. What it really wants to examine is how certain people react when the chips are down and the result can be surprising. More than anything it truly understands the character of Batman, the superhero with the dark side, who isn’t appreciated by most and even loathed by some. Using this it takes him to places where most films would be afraid to go and ends on an ominous and truly frightening note. What happens to the world when our heroes become our enemies?


Mamma Mia: The Movie

I kept saying it to myself over and over again, resist. As each musical number came and went that word kept creeping back into my head, resist. As Meryl Streep continues to astound us with her abilities which after seeing Mamma Mia are seemingly endless I could only continue to try my hardest to resist. I wasn’t going to allow the upbeat, effervescent (that’s right I said effervescent!) choreography and those wonderful ABBA songs get the best of me; I was going to resist and decide to hate the corny story that surrounds all of the festivities. I had pretty much decided before even seeing Mamma Mia that I wasn’t going to like it, which in the critic world would earn me several demerits. I mean how could I like any film that would inspire the audience to hit around a beach ball before the film started? This made it certain that no matter what the circumstances I would no doubt be able to resist.

I never saw the Broadway version of Mamma Mia so I had no expectations for the film unlike many at the screening that were already huge fans. I am however a fan of ABBA, that ‘70s group that performed the songs that are in the film. You may know some of them such as Dancing Queen, The Winner Takes it All and of course the title song. The story that these songs have inspired is not very inspired at all. A girl who lives on a beautiful island in Greece with her mother discovers that she could be the daughter of any one of three men that slept with her mom nearly twenty years ago, roughly around the same time. Being that she’s about to get married she invites all three of them to her wedding hoping that she’ll find out which one is her dad. Of course mom knows nothing about this and will be shocked when the former lovers show up; laughter and tears will undoubtedly follow.

Meryl Streep is the mother and Amanda Seyfried is the daughter. The possible fathers are played by Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgard. As in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You the filmmakers here decide to go with actors who sing rather than with singers who act and that was the right decision. Streep gets most of the big musical numbers and to say that she’s astonishing is a true understatement. Being such a fantastic actress she sells each and every one of them, her Winner Takes it All number is a true show stopper, emotionally devastating, and right from the heart. Streep, pushing sixty years old, seems more like a teenage girl as she jumps, twirls, swoons and performs her ass off in one scene after another. In no small part because of her performance the musical sequences in Mamma Mia are infectious to say the least; many had the audience cheering enthusiastically afterward. Julie Walters and Christine Baranski are also brilliant as Streep’s old and dear friends, with Walters being a little bottle rocket of enthusiasm and Baranski doing what she does best which is to combine humor with eroticism like no other. No, Pierce Brosnan cannot sing but you have to give him credit for truly giving it all he has anyway.

Being able to open things up and film on a gorgeous Greek island only enhances the feel good nature of the material also makes for some great eye candy. What really shines through in Mamma Mia is that it seems as though everyone is having a ball making the film, and that feeling spreads through the audience as well. The musical numbers are so bubbly and uplifting that they cut right through all of the cheese and end up piercing our hearts. As you can tell I wasn’t able to resist and by the end of the film I was ready to start hitting around that beach ball along with everyone else.


Brad Anderson’s Transsiberian is a great psychological thriller for the first hour and twenty minutes or so before nearly falling apart. It stars Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer as an American couple traveling on a train through Russia on their way home from Peking. What starts out as an idyllic trip gets more and more nightmarish as they meet another couple from the West who may not be what they seem. When Harrelson goes missing after stopping in a small town we’re not sure what may have happened to him. Did he just lose track of time and miss the train or did something happen to him?

At its best Transsiberian evokes Hitchcock, as director Anderson knows how to use the MacGuffin to get us thinking one way only to surprise us later on. As the mysterious young couple, Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara add a layer of tension to the proceedings as we’re never quite sure of their intentions. Are they innocent lovers or is there something more nefarious going on? When a Russian detective (Ben Kingsley, doing yet another accent) enters the equation the film derails if you will, as it doesn’t seem to know where to turn and becomes a bit preposterous. For quite a while however, Transsiberian is successful at toying with the audience much like Hitchcock’s films did, and that’s no small feat.