Why So Pretentious? The Dark Knight, The Edge of Heaven, Mamma Mia!
By Fernando F. Croce

The Dark Knight is middling as a summer blockbuster, zero as art, and more than a bit alarming as a phenomenon. Christopher Nolan is a director who in six films hasn't stumbled upon a single human emotion, yet the opening of his new contraption, a nasty yet efficient bank holdup that introduces the late Heath Ledger as The Joker, is true, virile filmmaking. His staccato grace dissolves during the ludicrously blurry action sequences, but, if he can resist the urge to edit a car chase with a garbage disposal, Nolan might one day grab Walter Hill's torch. The difference is that Hill takes comic book-like material (Johnny Handsome, say) and turns it into pulp spectacle, while Nolan, dealing with a real comic book, puffs it up with bogus profundities and counterfeit "darkness." For the sequel to his Batman Begins, Nolan has an appropriately schematic structure: Christian Bale's tortured-millionaire-cum-caped-vigilante Bruce Wayne on one side, Ledger's sadistic pagliacci on the other, and Aaron Eckhart's untouchable DA Harvey Dent waiting in the middle for the Two-Face split. Gotham City is supposed to be a stand-in for our troubled zeitgeist, full of the kind of fear and moral confusion a self-proclaimed "terrorist" jack-in-the-box can feed on. Pungent concepts. Tastefully laid out on the table and spelled out for the viewer with dialogue-balloons ("You're the symbol of hope I could never be," Batman tells Dent), that's all they remain -- concepts. For such an allegedly ferocious narrative, this is an unaccountably chilly and antiseptic movie, as plodding and jejune (and as satisfied with its own "subversion") as the screen version of Alan Moore's V for Vendetta.

To be fair, The Dark Knight did provide the most chilling moment I have had at the movies all summer. I giggled at the ridiculous growl Bale employed from under his Batman mask, and was readily met with death stares from my neighboring viewers: Holy Mass had been violated. Please. Dude dresses like a bat, and suddenly cinema at long last fulfills its potential? It's bad enough when rabid fanboys become so prissy about the film's "awesomeness" that they fuse into one huge, fat-assed Comic Book Guy declaring "Worst critic ever!" at any questioning review; it's doubly depressing when the critics themselves swallow the hype machine's baby food and call it caviar for the ages. Ledger's Joker, for instance, has already been deemed a villain worthy of anthologies and posthumous awards, but kindness to a dead artist does no favors to the living -- for all the smeared make-up, demonic tongue-lolling and singsongy slur, his "agent of chaos" strikes me as a boringly busy performance. Then again, it's scarcely surprising that a film with lines like "the only morality in a cruel world is chance" would be given instant masterpiece status these days. It's been said that Nolan's film is this year's No Country for Old Men, and indeed it is: Dour, numbing, empty, and humping its one note of negativism over and over until people intone it like the Holy Writ. The Dark Knight is not "a portrait of our times," but the fact that so many supposed adults keep squandering precious ink over elaborate exaltations of its relevance is a portrait of our times.

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The Edge of Heaven is even more deterministic than The Dark Knight, yet it is filled with human beings rather than hypotheses of cartoon duality. The director, Fatih Akin, makes loud, messed-up, hothead films, where no reason is too insignificant for a character to flip over a table or bash someone's skull in. Head-On just about pulled a muscle trying to pump punk vitality into a meet-cute romance -- chatter of cultural collision was thrown around but, despite an affecting conclusion, everybody could have used a cold shower. Akin's latest account of German-Turkish clashes is both more ambitious and less posturing, with scrupulous attention to the emotional force of meetings and partings and a thankful lack of grand, hands-across-the-border statements. A story of connection: "Only God is entitled to solitude," an old immigrant (Tunçel Kurtiz) tells a tough, middle-aged Turkish hooker (Nursel Köse) in the Bremer red-light district. They move in together and, when tragedy strikes, the man's son (Baki Davrak) travels to Istanbul to seek Kurtiz's daughter. The daughter (Nurgül Yesilçay) turns out to be a petulant radical activist who flees to Germany and falls for the coed (Patrycia Ziolkowska) who helps her hide... and you connect the rest. There's no escaping a handful of contrivances (See the girl asleep in class? Pay attention! She's in the shot for a reason!) that feel like Babel's refried beans. Yet Akin smartly turns the film's final session over to Hanna Schygulla, who cuts through platitudes with a privately fierce, graceful sense of spiritual space. When the two first meet, Davrak tells her, "You're the saddest person here." But of course -- she was Fassbinder's muse!

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My parents insist that they named me after Buñuel axiom Fernando Rey, but riddle me this: What ABBA song was an international hit around 1977? I had to hear "Fernando" about a trillion times when I was growing up, so it's a blessing that, except for a few hummed bars, the song isn't in the movie version of the group's stage musical smash Mamma Mia! The mostly ghastly spectacle is redolent of ball-crushing disco pizzazz and the cut-cut-cut editing of stage directors making wobbly screen debuts (Phyllida Lloyd is the culprit). Above all, it has a performance by Meryl Streep that's comparable, to quote one wag on Garbo in Two Faced Woman, to seeing your mom drunk. As the aging-hippie owner of a Greek seaside tavern whose bride-to-be daughter (Amanda Seyfried) looks for her real dad, Streep labors hard for buoyancy but comes off like Streisand with gas in her "The Winner Takes It All" number. Christine Baranski and Julie Walters help perform the gay-bar chestnuts, while Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgard offer contrasting flavors of fatuousness. Fans of the show will probably enjoy it; I was just relieved it wasn't The Phantom of the Opera. Or The Dark Knight.


Reviewed July 25, 2008.

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