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by Bill Gibron

20 Jul 2008


They are not supervillians. They are not some cartoon-clad combatants looking to make the life of the Caped Crusader a living graphic novel Hell. They don’t hold the fate of the world in their hands - as a matter of fact, within their chosen profession, many believe they barely matter in the marketplace of ideas. When you’ve got a messageboard community that senses they set the benchmark for all movie discussion, what does a mere cadre of critics have to offer? That’s right, Gotham’s Most Wanted is not a clown faced murderer, a fire-scarred ex-DA, a burlap masked pharmaceutical loon, or a disgruntled world criminal. No, it turns out that Batman’s biggest enemy - and by indirect linkage, the biggest bane of fanboy existence - are the 12 journalists (and holding) who gave The Dark Knight a bad review.

Now, there is nothing wrong with voicing one’s opinion. By its very nature, film criticism is a contrite exercise in singular self-expression. Sure, we reviewers try to measure the medium against its past while taking the demographic and intended market motivations into consideration. And when you think about (if you think about it), Peter Travers or Roger Ebert aren’t really putting all of cinema into perspective. They are giving you a glorified judgment call on how they spent 90 to 150 minutes in a darkened theater. Thumbs up? Thumbs down. Sometimes, the experience is wonderful. On rare occasions, it’s a test of one’s personal tolerances. But for the most part, movie journalism is a journey into sustained mediocrity, either end of the decision spectrum being the true rarity. 

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the current meter rating for The Dark Knight over at Rotten Tomatoes.com sits at 94%. Out of 198 recorded articles, 186 have given the film a positive or “fresh” evaluation. The other 12 are listed as “rotten”, though how many of that dozen could actually be considered an outright dismissal of the movie is up for question. What’s even more amazing, between these dissenting voices, there are almost 2600 angry comments attached to their work (2538 as of 20 July). Like many websites, RT uses the ability to interact (a sham delineation - more on this in a moment) to drive hits and stimulate page views. The concept goes a little something like this: disgruntled/happy reader lets critic/bastard know how right/wrong he or she is, then visits repeatedly to see if anyone agrees/disagrees and if, miracle of miracles, the subject decided to talk back.

Now, the notion of interactivity has always been the ‘Net’s biggest carnival bark, a fallacy articulation that doesn’t really mean what the blinders drawn believers feel it does. For them, the sound of their own voice is apparently communication enough. Comments do not foster a conversation, since for the most part, they are declarative or assertive in nature. Picture it this way - you and your best friend are hanging out, having a few beers, when the subject of Salma Hayek comes up. You believe she’s hot. Your pal thinks otherwise. The WWW version of the dialogue would go a little something like this:

“Salma Hayek is HOT!”

“Salma Hayek is NOT HOT”

“SALMA HAYEK IS TOO HOT, (EXPLETIVE DELETED) (Various Emoticons)”

“(EXPLETIVE DELETED) YOU (EXPLETIVE DELETED) (Various Emoticons)”

Not really the Algonquin Round Table when you think about it. Of course, within the context of said exchange, a great deal of spoken subtext and interpersonal reaction is missing. A one or two sentence statement at the end of a review is not really a tête-à-tête, and should never be thought of as same. It’s more like the chant at a soccer match, or the applause/razzberries at a live performance. Aside from the self-aggrandizing element (most comments are more about the person than the piece they’re challenging), these exchanges are reminiscent of Monty Python’s Argument Clinic - the automatic nay-saying of anything the other side has to say.

Proof of this arrives when you look at the Dark Knight consensus. The 12 negative reviews have an average of 211 replies each. The lowest has 77. The highest taps out at 365. On the positive side of the situation, the standard is much, much smaller. Many favorable reviews have no comments, while others have garnered upwards of 30 or 40. A rough estimate would therefore be somewhere in the range of 5 to 7 replies each. Of course, there are aberrations. Two critics in particular warrant responses in the hundreds, but upon closer inspection, the reason becomes apparent - their reviews are less than glowing, and are very critical of the film overall while pointing to elements that allow them to recommend the experience. These are not the glowing raves the community requires, and thus the increase in reactions.

Those under the rejection radar have been eager to defend themselves, calling the web a “hotbed of immaturity” where “mob mentality” rules beyond clear critical thinking. Of course, that’s specious logic, since it suggests that the 186 critics who loved the film are just as out of the loop as the complainers. Clearly, the vast majority of those employed in a professional (or semi-professional) capacity as film journalists believe The Dark Knight to be something very special, so dismissing group opinion when a completely contradictory example of same stares you right in the interface seems baseless. It makes about as much sense as having someone who loved the movie complaining that mass consensus means their own feelings are less valid.

Being the odd man out, especially with something that is (at this point) fairly well received, means that you have to be prepared to take the slings and arrows that come with said status. It applies in either circumstance - this critic loved both Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween and the Wachowski’s recent Speed Racer, and the vitriol still hasn’t ebbed. So if you can’t stand the heat, get out from behind the typewriter, so to speak. But the unusual thing about The Dark Knight discussion (at least on the web) was that much of the hate started BEFORE the film was released. Critics like David Denby of The New Yorker, David Edelstein of New York Magazine, and Marshall Fine of Star Magazine had their reviews up on the Monday before the film was released. Yet within hours, each had dozens of dissenters, all arguing in favor of a movie they had yet to see.

The need for such an outsized defense of a yet to be released film may help explain why there is so much eventual anger against those who have failed to fall under Christopher Nolan’s spell. While the current media message is that critics don’t matter, it is clear that those personally invested in their favorite franchise want very few raindrops on the days before their parade appears. To argue that someone’s negative opinion is invalid, even without being able to ascertain your own verdict on the subject, smacks of a pathetic preemptive strike. Discredit the messenger in case the message turns out to be true, right? Even better, the Internet now fosters a kind of universality when it comes to ability. A few years sitting in front of the VCR/DVD player has turned everyone into a film expert. Bashing those with a few more career credentials under their belt is just another means of making your unqualified point.

Now, this is not to say that every critic is an authority. Some voices are so limited in their purview that they automatically dismiss specific genres or certain actors. But one of the things that a journalist can say - print or online - is that, if doing their job correctly, they consistently see a larger variety of films. Within any 52 week span, a reviewer can go through 200 general and limited releases, and that’s before DVD and other media outlets (such as Pay Per View) offer more options. Within that array are foreign films, documentaries, independents without certain distribution, and other outside the Netflix queue offerings. When said individual decides to dissent from the standard sentiment on a film, one hopes they do it with said perspective ready and articulated. And they typically do.

Sure, some are dismissive just to be different, to be the one who “hated” ET or “loved” the latest Uwe Boll movement. But for the most part, the reaction you see ‘blurbed’ as part of a Rotten Tomato or other summarization is just that - a reaction. It’s how the person saw the film at the moment, and there is little doubt that said subjection would change with time or another viewing. Being outside the mainstream view is not a bad thing, just a curious one. If 195 critics (and the Academy) felt that No Country for Old Men was worth honoring, what did the 11 people who disliked it see that they didn’t? And better yet, how do the 19 people who enjoyed The Love Guru defend themselves against the 108 who hated it?

The answer to such questions begs the original issue. Should someone who panned The Dark Knight be subject to such outsized fury, especially when those complaining were without the proper evidence (i.e. an actual screening) to back up their bashing? Certainly, once the naysayers saw the film, all bets are off. The Internet continues to provide this sham suggestion of interactivity, and therefore comments become the necessary evil that arrives with the new medium’s territory. As long as the business model supports such a hit driven divisiveness, situations such as this one will become more and more prominent (say, when Watchmen arrives in eight months?).

Still, do the Gotham 12 deserve the wrath they received? Why are these critics, and this film, becoming such a cultural lighting rod? It appears like, as print continues its cost-cutting, job eliminating ways, and the web decries its own self-styled position as the latest post-modern example of McLuhan’s laws, more of these circumstances are likely. As it stands, film journalists from foreign countries frequently find racial slurs and other ethnic slams as part of the comment section of their blog/review entries. Maybe it’s the growing pains that accompany any major expression shift. Perhaps we are seeing the calm before the storm before the readjustment. It could just be that, in the world of populist cinema, the geek will countermand the Establishment whenever they feel the need.

Whatever the case, the dozen (and possibly more) negative views of The Dark Knight is just part of an overall commercial phenomenon. Like the film itself, it will take time to see if it has legs, or merely represents a blip on what is frequently an overanalyzed and overhyped event. In the film, good guy Harvey Dent says something very prophetic to Bruce Wayne. “You either die a hero,” he articulates, “or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain.” In the film criticism game, it’s clear that, in the minds of Generation Vexed, some journalists have overstayed their welcome. They’ve become the nemesis to the nu-media. Sadly, the film also makes it clear we get the very kind of champions we deserve. If those who use anonymous comments as a means of venting their own insular ire are the future, we may also need some kind of comic book superman to save us as well.

 

by Bill Gibron

19 Jul 2008


God, who apparently obsesses on Bootsy Collins a little too much, has a problem in his afterworld corporate structure. Seems mortal souls are having a hard time giving up the non-holy ghost, and without available deadites to finagle into heavenly worker bees, the Omnipresent CEO is experiencing a heavy staff shortage. So he makes deals with potential pearly gate crashers: they help the living kill themselves and as casualty catalysts, they become a welcomed part of His Mothership Connection. The latest recruits, a couple of dead Chicago goombahs, agree to travel back down to the plane of reality to help Tex, a sick Stetson stick figure, kill video artist Leon DeWilde.

Seems our elongated doogie puncher despises this girly generator of must die TV and his pouty, bib overall wearing “canvas” stretcher Ray. Leon is obsessed with death, so much so that he Betamaxes anything in the throes of imminent mortality and calls it Jasper Johns. But even with anger just a rootin’ tootin’ to rage, our slender vittle just can’t seem to off the cathode offender. So it’s up to God’s goodfellas to use their skills at roller boogie and gay bashing to bring cow and party poke together for a final Brooklyn style wild west showdown. But who is the victim and who will be the victee…oh wait. Only Allah, and his Angels, knows for sure.

Meanwhile, in that addled bastion of otherworldly ethereality and make believe, also known as Hollywood, young actresses named Sin and Heaven just can’t seem to get a job offer…acting, that is. When a policeman stops our Miss Afterlife Paradise, it’s love at first ogle. Typical of getting out of a ticket, Heaven gets out of her blouse, and after a night on top of her cloud nine Valhalla, the oppressed officer becomes wildly possessive. He wants to marry Heaven, or at least take her home to “Momma.” But she wants to be a legitimate film star, even though she looks like a lemur and speaks like Perini Scleroso.

Hoping to land a much sought after audition with local “producer” Mr. Salacity, the girls primp and preen and practice their self-gratifying improvisation skills. But all Mr. S wants is a little slice of vice and a long hard night in the valleys of the kingdom of God. After a picnic debacle that leaves the lecherous S soaking in his own secretions, Mr. Big Shot now won’t give the always-willing women the time of day. So our beauties concoct a plan to kidnap the moviemaker and fornicate him into providing Equity cards. And all the while we learn that, apparently, the Bible is wrong. No matter if you are a rich or righteous dude, it’s pretty damn easy Getting into Heaven.

What in the name of nudity possessed Harry Novak, purveyor of rather solid soft-core sex farces and champion of the grind house grift, to release Angels? It’s not like it’s so blasphemous or teeming with Last Temptation tawdriness that churchgoers would line up simply to denounce its non-depravity. While the notion of angels as God’s private assassins may seem a little outrageous, there is never once a slanderous shot taken at Jehovah or his need for contractual hit men (or women). Maybe Harry thought that, with the advent of Sheilds and Yarnell and Doug Henning, the world was ready for a movie co-starring wistful, effeminate manboys, one of which specializes in the deadest of ancient arts—the pantomime. Really, there is nothing here for or by or to remotely engorge the well-worn exploitation enthusiast.

The scorecard of carnality is putrid. There is a half-topless shot thirty minutes into the narrative, and some completely under the cover horizontal handsprings at the forty-five minute mark. But the rest of the movie is like one big long inferred homosexual brain buster, since the film is chockfull of gay imagery, queer suppositions, and way too many sequences of well-muscled mime. Sure, this could all be chalked up to the mid-‘70s retreat into an “anything with anyone goes” attitude that seemed to welcome disco and its 54 feyness right through the velvet ropes. But the movie just makes no sense as a sellable item. It doesn’t have anything novel or naughty to say about how the Lord works, either in mysterious or (as in this case) monotonous ways. And the avant-garde art angle of exploring entities on videotape the moment before they die sounds like a bad dream Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross once had.

Kind of like a bong hit version of Peeping Tom, Angels wants to say something cogent about accepting life after death via the Sony camcorder. Unfortunately, it does so with a Fire Island road company version of Godspell.

Getting into Heaven, on the other hand, gets its raunch and randy factors just right. While not a Novak product (with a title like that it really should be), simply repeating this movie’s marquee moniker will give you the gist, the grist, and the gravy of this seedy little sexcapade in a simple three word phrase. Then add the ample talents of one Uschi “Oh La La” Digart, and you’re in for a goofy delight that is funny as well as frisky. True, the male leads represent manliness at its most bereft of beefcake, but apparently it is easier to convince a paying audience of Everymen that hot babes would rotate their tires if the studs in seduction looked like feed store clerks. Still, there are also a many ribald reasons why Getting into Heaven really ratchets up the rug burns for the connoisseurs of curves.

While the notion of a full body snuggle with gallons of Vicks Vapo-rub seems a tad…how does one put this…mentholated?…the extended incident of Sin lathering up Heaven for a little “alternative” massage aromatherapy is guaranteed to enflame your sweetbreads and coldcock your bi-values. And when Uschi wants to, she can sell the sex act better than any standard, non-hardcore actress. Yes, she does occasionally look like a beaver in search of a good range of cedar to sink her choppers into, but more often she smolders with a fire down below burn that ignites the screen. It’s no wonder she is a darling of the exploitation genre. Aside from being built like a terracotta bulldozer, she can really pour on the pure joy of playing jock hockey.

Getting into Heaven may simply be 80+ minutes of simulated sex surrounded by cornball jokes and comic asides, but it meshes the two so effortlessly that you’ll laugh as much as you leer. And when Uschi is in your eyeline, everything is bound to get steamier.

 

by Bill Gibron

17 Jul 2008


Duality is the nature of man. We all have good and evil inside us. Which side we choose to embrace earmarks our very existence, putting us on a path toward redemption…or damnation. Christopher Nolan understands the very humanness of his characters. From Memento‘s Leonard to The Prestige‘s dueling magicians, the split personality within all of us has become this filmmaker’s aesthetic playground. When he first revamped the Batman mythos for his 2005 blockbuster, fans were worried that future installments in the series would be more psychological than spectacle. Add to that the death of his choice for The Joker, and The Dark Knight seemed destined to succumb to ridiculous expectations. Instead, it instantly becomes one of the best films of 2008, if not the current reigning champion at the top.

Gotham, still under the crush of rampant corruption and uncontrollable crime, maintains Batman as their shimmering ray of hope. But now the Caped Crusader has a powerful ally in elected office. Harvey Dent, the new DA (and romantic paramour of Bruce Wayne ex Rachel Dawes) may not appreciate the superhero’s tactics, but like Inspector Gordon, he will tolerate the effect the symbol has on the lawless. After a daring bank robbery in which a large sum of laundered money goes missing, Gotham’s avengers believe they can put the mob away for good. Desperate to keep this from happening, the mafia turns to two individuals to protect their interests. One is a Hong Kong businessman who is convinced he can retrieve and hide the cash. And the second is someone called The Joker, a facially scarred madman who has an easy solution to the problem. Kill the Batman.

Like a symphony where every note is exactly where it needs to be, or a painting without a brushstroke wasted, The Dark Knight is an unabashed, unashamedly great film. It’s a flawless amalgamation of moviemaker and material, Christopher Nolan’s calling card for future cinematic superstardom. All those comparisons to The Godfather and Heat are well earned. This is popcorn buzz built for the complex mind, a motion picture monolith constructed out of carefully placed plot and performance pieces. At two and a half hours, it’s epic in approach. But as the battle between men who are each facing their own inner demons and unsettled sources of personal discontent, its subtext and scope are unmatched. This is Coppola at his crime opera peak, Kubrick coming to the comic book and banging on all meticulously crafted cylinders.

While Heath Ledger will get all the print space (and rightfully so - more on this in a moment), it needs to be said that the biggest character arc belongs to Aaron Eckhart as future Two-Face Harvey Dent. When we are first introduced to the maverick DA, we wonder if the pretty boy blond with the pearly white wholesomeness can find the depth to delve into what makes this public official potentially lethal. When the change-over occurs, we are given plenty of time to recognize how desperate he will become. Aside from the outstanding make-up job which renders Dent a zombified version of his former self, Eckhart turns his rage into a pinpoint laser, focusing it on the one person he blames for turning him into a freak.

And speaking of villainous oddities, Ledger is indeed majestic as Gotham’s new threat. Gritty and grotesque, his face caked with rancid clown make-up, this is a Joker as spoiled fruit, a disseminator of destruction using his unusual looks to cover-up a serial killer’s aura. There is a careful cadence in the way Ledger speaks, an inferred thoughtfulness that contradicts his lax murdering ruthlessness. It’s easy to see why critics are calling for some manner of Oscar recognition. In a realm where evil is typically expressed via glorified grandstanding, this villain merely gloats as he gets down to business. When bounced off Eckhart and Christian Bale, Ledger creates a beautiful ménage a menace.

As usual, our hero brings his A-game, a complicated confusion that really humanizes the Batman. If he’s done nothing else, Nolan has expertly explained why one man with the world’s wealth at his fingertips would turn to a life of vigilante justice - and why he would continue on once he fulfilled his payback purpose. The motivation in The Dark Knight is even more multifaceted, involving a series of obligations, duties, threats, promises, protections, and consequences. Nolan never gives the character a break, and Bale brings the proper perspective to all aspects of the role. There is never a false note in any of the movie’s many twists and turns, and its all thanks to a capable cast (Michael Caine’s Alfred and Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox included), as well as the man behind the lens.

It doesn’t take much to commend Christopher Nolan for what he accomplishes here. Not just for taking a pen and ink world and realizing it within the crime and punishment confines of our own. Not just for having the vision (and commercial clout) to deliver a 150 minute dissertation on the true nature of law and order, but also for taking the bigger risks within the material. This is not the Joker’s origin story. There are no vats of chemicals or mob boss vendettas to work out. This is not a gadget heavy stream of criminality with gags whizzing by as frequently as bullets. Instead, Nolan is out to make a kind of neo-noir, albeit one that avoids the shady ladies and half-drawn blinds that usually exemplify the genre.

As with any outsized vision, Nolan threatens to let everything spiral out of control. Yet just when we think his approach can’t get any broader, he brings things in close, awarding Bale and Ledger one-on-one’s that provide the heady buzz of a finely aged bottle of whisky. Like the great filmmakers he matches against, Nolan knows that there’s as much power in the little moments as the large. The Dark Knight has many of these narrative kiss-offs, sequences where characters can practically taste the bitterness on each other’s breath. It’s these incredible juxtapositions - the skyscrapers of Gotham stand-in Chicago vs. the claustrophobia of Wayne’s junkyard lair, the optimism of Dent’s initial drive vs. the dread in his need for revenge - that engages and overwhelms us. It’s what allows this film to transcend the summer season to become a stand alone classic.

Indeed, The Dark Knight is one of those experiences that, decades from now, will be viewed with the kind of crazed critical and cult revelry that meets such operatic opuses as Scarface or Goodfellas. It bests the previous incarnation of the Batman character because it never takes the substance as slapstick or cartoon. It guarantees that, whatever Christopher Nolan wants to do next, he will have the opportunity (and budget) to do so. And it will stand as one of the finest examples of human quid pro quo ever put on film. Everyone has two sides to their personality - the one they show to the world and the one they slyly keep to themselves. In the case of this amazing movie, there is only discernible façade…and it’s one of greatness.

by Bill Gibron

16 Jul 2008


When it arrives in theaters tomorrow (18 July), Mamma Mia! will probably go down as one of the biggest hits of Summer 2008. It has all the elements that make for a bold box office champion - previous recognition factor, a soundtrack to die for, and a cast that crosses over many demographical lines. Still, if the movie only manages to make a small impression, or fails to fully realize its clear commercial aims, there will be one reason and one reason only for its collapse - and her name is Phyllida Lloyd. A noted UK director, specializing in theater, this is her first major motion picture, and it shows. Though she was responsible for the staging of Mamma Mia! when it played London’s West End, whatever skill she had along the boards really didn’t translate here. This is perhaps the worst directing job ever for an otherwise fun major motion picture (albeit one not helmed by someone named Boll or Ratner). In four basic film categories, Ms. Lloyd underperforms miserably. She turns a potential classic into a merely viable entertainment. Let’s being with:

Setting, Location, and Atmosphere
The movie, as in the stage musical, is set on an enchanted Greek island that is supposed to possess a kind of magical whimsy that draws lovers to their soul mates. It’s also the proposed home of the legendary Fountain of Aphrodite, a source of everlasting potable passion. Lloyd begins our invitation to the locale with a lovely shot - our lead Amanda Seyfried, singing “I Have a Dream” as a topaz blue sunset engulfs the atoll. We are then introduced to a random selection of shots that fail miserably to establish the rest of the surroundings. It’s all part of a plan that this director has for avoiding anything remotely establishing and certain. When we are introduced to Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, and Pierce Brosnan, (Seyfried’s three “fathers”) they too live in poorly defined areas and circumstances which require a kind of cinematic judicial notice to comprehend. Perhaps it’s all knowledge we don’t need, but when you’re about to have characters randomly burst into song, anything that can ground us definitely helps.

From this point on, Lloyd really destroys the ambience. While she has an entire Mediterranean backdrop to work with, she insists upon using fake sets, greenscreen vistas, and some incredibly awkward staging to realize her aims. “Mamma Mia” takes place on an old goat hut rooftop, while “Dancing Queen” moves from soundstage to seaside in a series of severe jump cuts. An ocean romp between Seyfried and her Brit boy toy Dominic Cooper is interrupted by a group of hunky scuba divers who proceed to dance like stand-ins from Spamalot. Lloyd may argue that it’s all part of a way of creating movie magic and emotion, but we’re so desperate to connect with this material that her hamfisted hackwork makes us angry. We want a vision of something otherworldly and ethereal, a fuzzy bubble blissfulness where love is illustrated as a particular moment and place. Instead, we’re so busy getting our bearings that we never fully understand where we are, and why it casts such a schizophrenic pall over everything.

Character Interaction and Clarification
Unless you walk in with a working knowledge of the stage musical, there is very little personal perspective offered by this director. She believes in the shorthand version of characterization, giving us meaningless shot snippets (Firth as stuffed shirt, Skarsgård as beery bohemian, Streep as long suffering hippie chick) where a line of dialogue or single scene conversation would have sufficed. This is particularly important when the third act ‘twists’ start happening. Firth finds out that he’s gay, Seyfried discovers that maybe she is racing to the altar to avoid her mother’s disapproval, and Streep shifts from independent icon ex-rocker to desperate and dateless. When she sings “The Winner Takes It All”, it stands as a moment of personal reflection and self-sacrificing triumph. To suddenly go domestic seems surreal. But that’s because Lloyd has failed to set us up for such a reveal. It’s the same with Firth. He has a very weird conversation with Skarsgård that’s supposed to be one of those clueless male mix-ups where neither gent fully comprehends what the other is saying. Instead, it feels like an incomplete experiment from a screenwriter’s work in progress.

Part of the reason musicals work is through our ability to identify with the characters. Seyfried’s desire to know her onscreen dad instantly draws us in. It’s a wonderfully universal conceit. But along the way, Lloyd and Mamma Mia! turn the need very inward. Toward the end, it’s so frustratingly insular that we’re no longer sure if the man’s identity really matters (the narrative feels the same way). It’s even worse from Streep’s point of view. While it is never clearly explained, her past with these men seems to throw her for an unspecified loop. Not only is their presence perplexing, but when we learn that she had romantic liaisons with all of them (Brosnan’s being the most intense), her behavior goes from quirky to concerning. What exactly is her problem, and why is this supposedly empathetic Earth mother unable to speak frankly with her own child? Of course, this is a musical, some will say, we don’t need such in-depth dissections. But much of the missing pieces here are Lloyd’s fault, the direct result of filmmaking choices that never once draw us into these people’s world.

Narrative Drive
Granted, this is a clothesline plotline, a connect-the-dots conceit in which certain songs must stand for certain story points. Catherine Johnson deserves a lot of credit for finding a way - awkward or not - of combining all these tracks. Sure, there are clunky transitions, and sometimes one wonders if ABBA likes the implication of what the music is illustrating (as in Christine Baranski’s cougar-come on as part of “Does Your Mother Know?”). But as long as we can follow the various narrative strands, we should easily be able to decipher what’s going on. Sadly, Lloyd’s limits behind the lens once again come to the fore as she struggles to make sense of this often jarring jumble. Nothing is set up contextually - Streep’s financial woes, Cooper’s actual career path, what any of the potential Dad’s really do for a living, the ex-rock star situation, the back-up singers’ circumstance, the reason for all the disgruntled Greeks. Instead, Lloyd just lays it out there, thinking we’re clever enough (or perhaps, adequately doped up on Swedish pop perfection) to care. It shows the inherent laziness - and lack of previous big screen skill - this director applies.

Even worse, the movie sacrifices the men for more girl-oriented goading. Fans of the original show will clearly miss “Knowing Me, Knowing You” (a planned highlight for Brosnan’s character) and an interchange between Seyfried and Skarsgård to “The Name of the Game”. While it may have been a matter of running time, or perhaps inappropriate casting (why bring on big names if they can’t carry even the smallest amount of a tune?), it shows that Lloyd is not willing to take a risk. She’s so unsure of how to deal with the obvious material that something a little more complicated simply gets extricated. The ending is even changed, moving “Take a Chance on Me” from a pre-wedding placement to a last act celebration of middle aged matron desperation. Thanks to this cobbled together approach, equally marred by a visual acumen that can best be described as slipshod, Mamma Mia! must get by on ABBA and actors only. Sometimes it succeeds. At other instances, Lloyd also lets them down. 

Production Numbers and Musical Interludes
This is perhaps the biggest problem with Mamma Mia! in general, something that most big screen musicals - jukebox based or original - strive to overcome. ABBA wrote some undeniable gems, ear worms that won’t leave your brain even after decades of the most dedicated efforts to purposefully purge same. They are so bright and bubbly, so pert and effervescent that they could almost carry the film by themselves. Sadly, they almost have to. Lloyd fails to fully understand how to bring song and dance to film, instead relying almost exclusively on a mob mentality to illustrate her tunes. Take the party number “Voulez-Vous”. The direction is mind-numbingly awful, the camera swirling around and cross cutting in such a randomized fashion that, what should feel exciting becomes chaotic and disjointed. It’s something that happens with other group entries like “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” and “Money, Money, Money”. There is such confusion to what Lloyd puts before audiences that any enjoyment they get must be inferred from the sonic situations in play.

The one-on-one moments are a tad better. “Slipping Through My Fingers” has a nice mother/daughter vibe, though the lack of actual singing by Streep and Seyfried seems an odd choice for a musical. After all, vocalizing (even in post-production lip sync) is part of the purpose here. Going montage makes no sense. Similarly, there are other instances when the actors stop moving their mouths, even as their rendition of the lyrics come pouring out of the speakers. Perhaps the biggest offense occurs at the film’s climax, when Streep gives Brosnan a last chance brush off with “The Winner Takes It All”. This is her big ballad moment, a culmination of everything the character has committed to and stands for. And with an actress as capable as Streep at the helm, it should floor us. Lloyd, instead, turns this into a cockeyed carousel of mixed emotions, her whirling dervish lens never settling on the action long enough to let us in on the song’s significance. It just keeps dipping and diving around the actors, removing any chance that we might witness something akin to an actual performance. Luckily, Streep’s gestures save it in the end, ensuring that this will be one director who does not ruin her work through inexperience and incompetence.

It’s nothing personal on Ms. Lloyd. There is no denying her work in theater, but her limited TV time clearly did not prepare her for the challenge of making this movie. For those still convinced that she was the proper choice for this project, just take this impromptu survey - who would have done a better job here, Phyllida Lloyd, or Adam Shankman (the man behind last year’s equally buoyant Hairspray)? Or imagine if Rob Marshall (Chicago, the upcoming Nine) had been put in charge. Wouldn’t this film have functioned a whole lot better had someone like Frank Oz (Little Shop of Horrors), Baz Lurhmann (Moulin Rouge!), or even Julie Taymor (whose Across the Universe tried the same thing with The Beatles). In a medium that relies on the convergence of many competing creative elements, Mamma Mia! could have been a nuclear powered pixie stick, so satisfyingly sweet that we become instantly addicted to its comfort food qualities. Instead, it’s a half-success, stunted by someone who should have never been given a seat behind the camera in the first place.

 

by Bill Gibron

15 Jul 2008


With only a half dozen films in his little over a decade old canon, Christopher Nolan stands at the crossroads of artform greatness. Not just being the best of his kind, but as an auteur worthy of names like Kubrick, Hitchcock, and Lumet. He’s no “next Spielberg” Shyamalan or foot draggingly difficult David O. Russell. Instead, he’s the bellwether for a new kind of filmmaker, one that successfully merges Hollywood classicism with the best of the post-modern revision. Looking at the six films he’s made since emerging in 1996, one can witness the development and growth of an innovative icon, someone schooled in the old ways of working while finding novel means of making his far reaching, philosophical points. With The Dark Knight about to signal his ascension into undeniable importance, let’s look back over his oeuvre to see just where it all started - and how he earned his new illustrious rank.

Following (1996)
Offering an initial glimpse into what would soon be a full blown motion picture aesthetic, Nolan’s no-budget debut is a celebratory shape of good things to come. Few have seen this minor monochrome masterwork, a combination of the best that noir and the post-modern approach to film has to offer. Intercutting between a writer’s unusual obsession (he follows people inconspicuously as they go about their daily life) and a pseudo crime caper involving a burglar and a babe, Nolan acknowledges his limits while simultaneously using every deception he knows in the language of film. Filming with amateurs over a year of weekends, the resulting 69 minutes stand as a blueprint for what would soon be a career to be reckoned with.

Memento (2000)
With its eccentric cast - Carrie-Anne Moss, Joe Pantoliano, Guy Pearce - and equally unusual premise and presentation, Christopher Nolan declared his artistic worth with this wildly successful indie effort. Built out of his brother Jonathan’s short story Memento Mori, and applying a backwards story structure that bested Pulp Fiction for narrative ingenuity, the filmmaking novice vaulted past many other outside amateurs to step front and center into the critical limelight. While some argued that the movie was more gimmick than engaging, others find the mystery in reverse tactic more satisfying than the standard whodunit. Even today, eight years later, many marvel at its unique structure and cinematic daring.

Even more telling, Memento suggests the specific elements that would come to make Nolan a true directorial talent. The painstaking attention to details, the unbridled character depth, the desire that everything onscreen, from the smallest moment to the biggest big picture pronouncements, make sense are literally encased in his creation. Many miss the fact that Nolan is a brilliant writer as well. He has had a hand in every screenplay he’s ever filmed, and you can see the connection and consistency up onscreen. A movie like Memento could easily go perplexing and pear-shaped, especially in the hands of one of Hollywood’s journeymen. This is one time where high concept met even larger ability - and the result was magical. 

Insomnia (2002)
It’s never easy adapting a popular foreign film for Western tastes, especially when said movie is this laconic, spellbinding thriller from Sweden. The original starred
Stellan Skarsgård as a sleep-deprived detective on the case of a murdered girl. It exposed director Erik Skjoldbjærg to audiences worldwide, and was so well considered that the Criterion Collection gave the film one of its well-deserved Special Edition DVD treatments. So Nolan definitely had an uphill battle, especially with this being his first studio feature. Saddled with a cast that included a peak Al Pacino, a rising Hilary Swank, and a misplaced Robin Williams, the filmmaker fashioned a kind of sunlit noir, a world where the darkest elements exist within the never-ending Alaskan days. 

It’s not just that the former stand-up turned middling actor is horribly wrong for the role of a sleazoid killer. Nor is it the oddball juxtaposition of European angst coming out of the mouth of high profile Hollywood faces. No, the true issue with Insomnia is one of “why bother”. Sure, Nolan seamlessly weaves the worlds of memory and immediacy, effortlessly swinging between flashback and fact, and he makes the most of his frozen tundra location. But Skjoldbjærg’s version was just as good, and Skarsgård gave a heartbreaking performance. So a remake was merely a matter of foreign film snobbery. No matter the genius of the man behind the lens, this version of Insomnia still seems unnecessary.

Batman Begins (2005)
It was a monumental task that any director would find daunting. Warner Brothers, desperate to revamp the Caped Crusader after Joel Schumacher and his day-glo frightmares more or less killed him off, was looking for some fresh new talent to take over the franchise. While names like Tarantino and Aronofsky were tossed about, Nolan got the nod. From the very beginning, he put his stamp on the project. He hired Christian Bale to play a decidedly tormented Bruce Wayne. He focused on less famous villains like Scarecrow and Ra’s al Ghul. He wiped away the cartoon sheen suggested by the material and set all the action within a dire, depressively realistic Gotham City. This new approach clicked. Audiences adored Nolan’s aggressive update, and critics applauded his originality and artistry.

This is definitely not Tim Burton’s Batman. Gone are the Goth tinged tricks and A-list anarchy. In their place are real performances from actors doing everything to make this material feel fully realized and totally authentic. Bale is especially good, though his breathy ‘Bat whisper’ gets the occasional fanboy in a lather. Yet Nolan wisely surrounded him with a supporting cast including old world wonders like Michael Caine (great as Alfred), new school sages like Liam Neeson, and up and comers like Cillian Murphy (hauntingly creepy as Scarecrow/ Dr. Crane). With a clockwork narrative allowing all plot points to neatly fall into place, Batman Begins represented a new era for the comic book movie - one that Nolan would again redefine five years later.

The Prestige (2006)
In the year that passed after Begins broke through both critically and commercially, everyone wondered what Nolan would do next. While many wanted to see another installment of Gotham in chaos, they would have to wait for a future opening day. Instead, the director and his gifted screenwriter brother created a remarkable adaptation of the Christopher Priest novel. Oddly enough, of the two films centering on old world magicians to arrive that year (along with The Illusionist), Nolan’s was the lesser mainstream hit. But what it lacked in financial windfalls it made up for in motion picture artistry. In a year that celebrated Martin Scorsese’s Departed with an Oscar, and saw stellar work arrive from Darren Aronofsky in the form of The Fountain, The Prestige was the year’s best film. 

At its core, The Prestige plays with notions of fascination, dedication and deception. It starts out as a professional battle of wills between two talented men, and ends up a sad comment on how low mere men will go to best each other. Bale is back, becoming a seasoned member of the Nolan creative company with his turn here, and Hugh Jackman delivers yet another insanely good performance as the showman who’s more flash than onstage substance. While both parts offer their fair share of nuance, the Aussie bests his British rival, reveling in a snarky kind of smarm that makes your skin crawl as your heart breaks. A few years from now, when Nolan has settled into his multiple award winning career, The Prestige will be seen as his strong creative breakthrough. It stands as one of cinema’s strongest statements.

The Dark Knight (2008)
With his last film underperforming and the studio anxious for more Batmania, Nolan began the process of revisiting Gotham by looking for his next supervillian. At the end of Begins, Gary Oldman’s Sgt. Gordon (soon to be Commissioner) shows the Caped Crusader a piece of evidence - a playing/calling card for someone known as the Joker. With this dynamic already set up, the director started casting. Several people suggested Michael Keaton as the character, a nice bit of symmetry to the previous run of films. Others suggested Crispin Glover, Mark Hammill (who voiced the character in the cartoon update), and even an aging Jack Nicholson. Nolan went with Heath Ledger, the Australian actor best known for his work in Monster’s Ball, Brokeback Mountain, and I’m Not There. It turned out to be an inspired choice…and a tragic one. After filming was completed, Ledger would die of an accidental drug overdose.

A combination of menace and melancholy looms over The Dark Knight, painting its masterful crime epic sweep in uncomfortable shades of interpersonal doom. Nolan’s latest is indeed a masterpiece, albeit one that avoids all the pitfalls that come with being yet another Summer box office draw. Blockbusters don’t get much darker and demanding than this, a 150 minute descent into the fractured psyche of four unflappable men. Along with Bale and Ledger, Oldman returns for more Gordon drama, and just when you thought we’d found a hero to save Gotham, Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent goes from conqueror to conquered in a literal blaze of g(l)ory. His Two-Face is just one of many amazing features in this Oscar worthy effort, a true indication that Christopher Nolan is the best director working in films today.

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