Jokers Wild

After successfully redrawing the origins of his superhero character in Batman Begins three years ago, British director Christopher Nolan continues his story in the morbid and dangerous Dark Knight; a thrilling crime story cut with an acid misanthropy and one of the films of the year.

Opening with a brilliantly choreographed bank robbery, the film soon establishes Batman’s (Christian Bale) struggle to bring peace to Gotham City. As the media accuse Batman of being an all-powerful vigilante, the mafia have tightened their grip on the underworld, with the help of malevolent outside influences disguised as investment capitalists. But even the collected criminal gangs are unprepared for a new threat, the dangerously psychotic Joker (Heath Ledger), an amoral criminal who believes in nothing but disorder. While the Joker hatches his plans to destroy the city and its masked hero, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and his girlfriend Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) are positioning themselves to affect a political solution to the crime wave, with the help of Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman).

Seeing an opportunity to rescue Batman from the camp excesses of the 1990s, director Christopher Nolan and his brother and co-writer Jonathan elevate their superhero from the doldrums of genre-bound familiarity and in the process, redefine blockbuster entertainment. This is a movie that takes the mythology and accoutrements of its familiar central character and turns it into a meditation on bleak themes and unsettling politics that speaks directly to how the world is today. The Dark Knight is a morality play that casts good against evil, order against chaos but more than that, it comprehensively blurs the lines between right and wrong, carefully measuring out how far the good can go to do the right thing, and directly questioning the morality of those methods. These are not issues the malevolent Joker is overly concerned with, as Alfred says “some people just want to watch the world burn”, these are aspects of Batman’s own consciousness, closely wrapped in his own struggle with his identity, his motivations and his reasoning. Nolan creates a shadowed world where being a hero is a Sisyphean struggle, where triumph is snatched away as soon as it is won and order is impossible.

Batman is only as strong as the villain that opposes him, and Ledger provides an indelible bad guy. Arriving fully formed and unexplained, The Joker is a creation of pure untrammelled evil, a creepy sadist in an unsettling green suit, flashing his favoured knives (“so I can savour the moment”) and compulsively licking his torn lips. From behind his greasy white makeup, smudged black eyes and livid red scars, Ledger gives a chillingly hypnotic performance; frightening and violent but also intimate and occasionally sympathetic. More than what he looks like, it is what he represents that is the true horror of The Joker and Ledger clearly revels in becoming the unknowable engineer of bedlam, who believes in nothing other than himself. He has no morals, no conscience, no ambition beyond anarchy, no scheme to foil. He is the ultimate terrorist, and Batman can only stop him by, in part, becoming like him.

Faced with this powerhouse, Bale’s Batman is reduced, relying on a hoarse rasping delivery and all-powerful physicality when suited up and the actor’s easy charm and confidence when playing the playboy Bruce Wayne. The rest of the cast are again perfectly chosen. Michael Caine returns as the desert-dry butler Alfred and Gary Oldman reprises his honest cop Gordon, now promoted to Commissioner. Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over for the hapless Katie Holmes, playing the lost-love Rachel as a smart lawyer determined to fight for good while Aaron Eckhart is outstanding in the thanklessly straight role of politician Harvey Dent, aided by a stomach-churning transformation into the half-mad Two-Face, who should perhaps be nicknamed Half-Face.

More than his skill with the actors, Nolan has a consummate sense of place, creating a Gotham where even daylight is cast in a sombre blue, a beautifully realised place of towering skyscrapers and ash-blown cellars. Even in gloom, this is a beautiful production, emphatically photographed, edited with skill and precision and underlined with a driving score of throbbing chords and abstracted heavy metal. Six of the film’s most elaborate special effects sequences have been shot in the 65 millimetre IMAX format, adding a breathtaking sense of scale and pin-point visual precision to the already hyperkinetic action.

The Dark Knight is scattered, confused and frightening. It unfolds in fits and starts, breaking from one carefully positioned dramatic moment to rain chaos down on its characters. If Batman Begins showed us that in Nolan’s hands, this material is not just for the comic books, the sequel underlines that ambition. This is a haunted tragedy that recasts the ancient myths of the hero in an ultramodern nihilism, achieving a complexity of feeling that is difficult to achieve in any kind of art, let alone the multi-million dollar studio summer movie. It is simply unmissable.

Memento Mori

In one-of-a-kind Guy Maddin’s paean to Manitoba’s cold and sleepy capital city, the Canadian surrealist analyses his relationship with his home town, its history, the people and his own family for My Winnipeg, an archly comic, monochrome pseudo-documentary.

Over the course of his nine features and umpteen short films, Maddin has honed his unique method – influenced by silent films, industrial shorts, golden age melodramas and camp science fiction serials – to create a flavoursome, visually breathtaking body of work unlike any other. It is also one which you will either love or hate on sight. In My Winnipeg, commissioned by the local government, Maddin pens a fluid biography of the snowbound city, using old stock footage, puppetry, video and painstaking recreations, one of which opens the film. We then cut to a long poetic sequence on a moving train as Maddin, (played by Darcy Fehr) tries one more time to leave Winnipeg for good. Maddin narrates his story in a sonorous baritone, blending old legends and questionable history with an acid critique of the town’s efforts to modernise itself and fantasies about his youth and his family.

As Maddin tells it, Winnipeg is a place of dreams, its citizens sleepwalking through the streets at night dreaming of the ancient natives and lost underground rivers. They dream of lost back streets, forgotten department stores, old sporting glories and strange historical happenings; like when horses fled a stable fire and were trapped in a freezing river to, overnight, become a macabre sculpture garden for local picnickers. Maddin recreates it all, from the waving skaters astride the staring, icy horse heads to an infamous Masonic séance that channelled the god of the bison through a psychic ballerina. The director himself plays a role in these intricate restorations, describing how he made a facsimile of his childhood home and cast actors to play his siblings. His mother, he tells us, was herself an actress, starring in a local soap opera called Ledge Man where, every day for 50 years, she talked a suicidal man down from the side of a building with sweet words and gentle encouragements.

We are told Mrs Maddin is playing herself, but in fact, the role is taken by Ann Savage, a leading lady in 1940’s noirs, most notably the surreal classic Detour. I didn’t recognise her - she is 87 now - but seeing her name in the credits, I was tempted to find out what else Maddin had invented. Are the city streets in fact named after famous brothel keepers? Is there a by-law that allows Winnipeggers to keep the keys to their old homes? Was his convent school really named “The Academy of the Super Vixens”? Did a corrupt mayor once fix the result of the annual Golden Boy male beauty pageant? No, of course not, but it doesn’t matter. In Maddin’s singular imagination this is how it happened and he spins from those fragments a fascinating, funny tale of place and time, loss and remembrance.

Maim Mama!

Theatre director Phyllida Llloyd makes her feature debut with this starry-cast but horribly saccharine adaptation of the stage musical, based on the lyrics of Abba songs.

The story of Mamma Mia! is wafer thin. Meryl Streep plays Donna, a fifty-something former showgirl who owns a dilapidated hotel on a Greek Island. Her twenty year old daughter Sophie, played by Amanda Seyfried (the dippy blonde in Mean Girls) is about to marry her sweetheart Sky (Dominic Cooper), with the ceremony to be held at the hotel. Having read her mother’s secret diary, Sophie has discovered that her father could have been one of three former lovers that Donna met over the course of a very busy month years before. Desperate to meet her father before her marriage, she invites all three, (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgård) to come to the island. Thus met, the gang then race around looking for reasons to sing Abba songs - lyrics crammed to fit the situation - before a predictably sweet and sun-kissed conclusion. For ‘Dancing Queen’, they have a dance and crown a queen. ‘I Have A Dream’ allows Sophie dreams of her real dad. 'Money, Money Money' brings about a discussion of the hotel’s precarious finances. On it goes, a race through twenty songs from the back catalogue, each of the principals getting their moment in centre stage, the story trailing along behind them.

So it’s rubbish. Upbeat, inoffensive and determined to entertain, but rubbish nonetheless. The biggest challenge of any musical is integrating the songs into an interesting, credible story; so it feels ‘natural’ when the actors suddenly break into song. That never happens here. Mamma Mia! is jazzed-up karaoke, a feeble excuse to run through the Abba classics, hanging limply from the bare branches of a gossamer story.

Streep, who last sang on screen in Postcards From The Edge, has a fine, clear voice, with her natural exuberance covering most of Donna’s character inadequacies. Likewise, Julie Walters gives it both barrels as best friend Rosie, belting out her numbers and kicking her heels to disguise a shaky, uninvolving presence. As the pairs preening rich-bitch friend Tanya, comedienne Christine Baranski carries most of the film’s sense of camp, a burden that proves too much for her.

From the men, only Pierce Brosnan shows any sign of having twigged the ridiculous nature of proceedings. He nervously warbles his way through a few numbers, his strained expression and awkward movements betraying his acute discomfort. Firth, as the millionaire lawyer Harry, plays a former punk but that still doesn’t excuse his tuneless screeching. As the adventurer Bill, Stellan Skarsgård doesn’t even attempt an entire number, wisely delivering his few lines in a croaking sing-song and hiding somewhere during the more bombastic set-pieces.

If the singing is a disappointment, the unconvincing sets and chocolate-box photography are even more so; the airy, fluent location exteriors crassly matched with the over-lit, unconvincing studio settings. Director Lloyd, who originated the stage show, lacks the basic technical and narrative skills to make the film bounce. A broad, flat and silly film, Mamma Mia! is strictly for the fans.

Going Gently

The tangled life of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas is told through the lives of the two women who loved him in Love Is The Devil director John Maybury’s artful, awkward The Edge of Love.

Opening during the Blitz in a tube station, we first meet the beautiful Vera Phillips (Keira Knightly) as she sings an uplifting song to the huddled Londoners. Watching her is a soldier, William Killick (Cillian Murphy), who trails her to a nearby pub when the all clear is sounded. There, Vera has meet her lifelong friend the poet Dylan Thomas, in the city to work on a propaganda documentary. Propping up the bar with the tempestuous writer is his wife Caitlin (Sienna Miller), and soon all four are joined in a squared-off relationship, Killick and Thomas butting heads over Vera’s affections while she and Caitlin strike up a thorny friendship, clouded with elements of jealously and rivalry. Before he is sent overseas, Killick and Vera marry and she returns with Thomas and Caitlin to a seaside town in Wales to wait for his return. There, away from the world, the competition between the two women becomes more irrational and intense.

As the twinned objects of the poet’s affections, Miller and Knightly give fine, nuanced performances, in turn delicate and boisterous. Miller in particular is a revelation as the fiery, feisty Caitlin, brilliantly evoking the pain of living with genius, made even more anxious by the imminent prospect of death and ruin in wartime. Knightly as her rival and best friend plays Vera in much the same way as she did her lead in Atonement, her practical façade cracking under heartfelt emotional pressures. Their relationship is the heart of the film, and both prove worthy of the assignment.

Although he looks the part, Rhys cannot find the power in his voice to match the poet’s words, unable to match the rolling, tumbling intonation of the poet, a disappointment given that Thomas recorded much of his work on tape. His recitation in voice-over of one of Thomas’ best known poems, Lament (“When I was a windy boy and a bit…”) is weak and flat. Worse than that, the actor gives such a dislikeable performance, full of actorly tics and goggle-eyed mooning, that he never gives us any reason to believe that two women would have fallen so deeply in love with him. His lechery seems half-hearted, his alcoholism and depravity an overly careful, measured descent. Murphy, as the damaged soldier Killick, gives a far more interesting performance, full of bravado and wit but the war absents him for long sections, returning him in a shell-shocked trance as a remote, jealous misfit. Pushed by his own demons into an act of desperation, Murphy brilliantly evokes the man’s panic and fear but the constantly self-referencing script noticeably deflates his performance, repeatedly underlining emotions the actor is well able to communicate himself the first time.

Despite being flawed in its execution dramatically muddled and jumpy in tone, The Edge of Love is a well mounted and, for the most part, well acted drama about fascinating people in extraordinary circumstances. It tries very hard to distil these freewheeling characters into easily digestible nuggets of information, but Maybury cannot give them their required force, leaving us still waiting for the definitive film about Dylan Thomas.

I Know Kung Fu

In DreamWorks funny and charming Kung Fu Panda, the titular black-and-white bear is Po (Jack Black), son of noodle-selling father Mr. Ping (James Hong) with secret dreams of becoming a kung-fu expert like his heroes, The Furious Five. One day, the Kung Fu Master Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) has a premonition that the evil snow leopard warrior Tai Lung (Ian McShane) will escape prison and destroy the town unless a warrior is chosen to stop him. Tai Lung is a former student of Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), the trainer of the Furious Five, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). Through a series of misfortunes, the mystical Oogway picks Po as the champion, and so begins a familiar, but inherently entertaining, story of overcoming obstacles and achieving dreams.

In real life, Black’s incessant jabbering has made him an increasingly difficult presence but in animated form his childish, high-tempo act suits the simple-hearted, easy-to-assemble Po, requiring little more than gumption, crisis and the battle for glory to construct a worthy hero. From the outset, Kung Fu Panda is a winning combination of knockabout farce, ticklesome one-liners, easily digested lectures and blur-motion fight sequences. It’s a wuxia story that’s a framework for jokes, not the other way around. The period setting eliminates any of the incessant pop culture references that blot other animations, and there is no discernable trace of the self-aware cynicism that can find its way into the new wave of digital cartoons, aimed squarely at the audience’s more worldly chaperones. Kung Fu Panda is innocent entertainment, a cartoon first and foremost.

And what an attractive animation it is. The opening dream sequence is a striking, Samurai Jack inspired arrangement of blacks and reds, swooping shapes and punchy action. The character designs are extraordinarily charming. Po has a waddling walk and big-boned presence, dwarfing his tiny Yoda-like mentor and clashing with his team of limber animal ninjas, their distinctive moves taken from the fighting styles they represent. The animators have crafted an array of beautifully lit, artfully composed background vistas, peopled with a constant rhubarb of sweetly observed villagers –pigs and ducks and rabbits. It is DreamWorks’ best-looking movie so far, stunningly rendered and presented with obvious affection for the long history of Asian martial arts cinema.

Pixar’s eco-themed Wall-E is likely to steal much of this bumptious film’s thunder, but if kids are looking to see both, grown-ups shouldn’t complain.