Notes from the back row 

Joker's last laugh

Superhero movies are big right now, this summer has already seen Iron Man, Hulk, Hellboy and Hancock battle their way across the silver screen. In part, this is because special effects have evolved to the point where filmmakers can do the impossible but it’s also because of the prevailing fear and paranoia in today’s world — we could all use a hero these days. Luckily, that hero has arrived and he is Christopher Nolan, director of The Dark Knight , the latest Batman flick opening at midnight Thursday night at the Village 8.

Even at almost two and a half hours long The Dark Knight stands out as the best superhero flick ever made and the best movie we’ve seen this year. This is a crime film first and foremost, a meaty, gritty saga dealing with the fine line between hero and vigilante, justice and madness, order and chaos.

The Batman (played again by Christian Bale) is conflicted — for all the evil he vanquishes more seems to spring up despite (and maybe because of) his efforts. His caped crusading and bad-guy ass kicking seems, at times, to be no more effective in cleaning up Gotham than the regular work of District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart.) Toss in the whole secret identity/yearning-for-simplicities-of-normal-life-with-a-normal-girlfriend stuff and Batman is one of those complex characters you don’t usually find in a superhero flick.

And then there’s the Joker. Much hype surrounds this film due to Heath Ledger’s untimely death earlier this year but in his last role Ledger knocks one out of the park, embodying the Joker as chaos-incarnate, a truly insane and deplorable entity. The Joker has never been more fiendish, more badass or more shitballs-crazy and director Nolan wisely plays the Batman/Joker dynamic as two sides of the same coin. Moral ambiguity is all over this picture. Gotham City is all grey area.

Add in Maggie Gyllenhal as a love interest, Alfred Caine and Morgan Freeman as Batman’s stay-at-home support staff, Gary Oldman as a much more utilized LT, Jim Gordon and a motley crew of baddies, villains, and do-no-gooders, and what Nolan has crafted is a complex, engaging crime story in which every character has depth and inner conflict.

On the visual side of things, The Dark Knight astounds. Partially shot in the giant-screen IMAX format, the action set pieces, the gadgets, the gizmos, the fights and the one-liners are all top notch. On the Imax screen, Nolan keeps interior scenes regular sized to add elements of intimacy then blows up to full screen gigantic proportions for the action. It works and it works well. A few minutes shaved off the running time might not have hurt but overall The Dark Knight is top of the class for superhero movies and definitely the first must-see picture of this summer. It might not get any better than this.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Mama Mia , a slapped-together flick based on the long-running stage musical of the same name, also opens Friday. First of all, ABBA blows but that doesn’t mean their music can’t be properly utilized in film (see Australia’s fantastic The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert) . Unfortunately, even with Meryl Streep starring, director Phyllida Lloyd — who despite having a crapload of ‘L’s and ‘Y’s in her name — lacks the skills required to mold the songs into an even half-decent movie. She’s a stage director and it shows. The twenty or so musical numbers in this daughter-seeking-to-learn-which-of-her-mom’s-three-lovers-is-her-real-dad drama are clunky and poorly staged and the whole movie sucks. No superheroes here, more like super-Zero.

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