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Bat Out of Hell

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Which brings me to the performance that’s the opposite of flat, the one you really want to know about.

How is Heath Ledger? My heart went out to him. He’s working so very hard to fill the void, to be doing something every second. It’s rave and rage and purge acting. This Joker is a straight-out psychopath—a Stephen King clown-demon with smudged greasepaint and yellow teeth and hair that appears to have never been washed. As written, the Joker is like a souped-up Andy Robinson in Dirty Harry (only this Harry won’t blow him away with a .44 Magnum), and Ledger revs it higher and higher. He bugs his eyes and licks compulsively at the gashes that extend his mouth. He tries on different voices. First he sounds like Cagney in White Heat, then slides into a prissy singsong like Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley, then throws in some fruity Brando flourishes and a dash of Hannibal Lecter. He’s lethal—fast with sharp objects—but apart from a gruesome bit with a pencil not terribly prankish. I couldn’t take my eyes off him, but in truth, I found the performance painful to watch. Scarier than what the Joker does to anyone onscreen is what Ledger must have been doing to himself—trying to find the center of a character without a dream of one.

Who’d-a thunk when Meryl Streep won her Oscar for Sophie’s Choice that 25 years later, she’d be capering fatuously to Abba songs while, next door at the multiplex, Batman would be reenacting Götterdämmerung? High culture, low culture, the center isn’t holding. Anyway, a golden-aureoled Streep does more fake laughing in the first half-hour of Mamma Mia! than in her entire career; she must have taken hits of nitrous oxide between takes. She plays the mother of a 20-year-old (Amanda Seyfried) who’s about to get married (they live on a sun-drenched Greek island) and wants to know which of the three men who made the beast with two backs with Mom is her dad—so she invites the trio (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard) to the wedding. None of the synthetic Abba hits have to do with this setup: They’re generic, shoehorned in, and when the characters begin to sing they don’t reveal more of themselves—they become more simpleminded. It wouldn’t matter if there were good dancing, but it’s all skipping-along-cliff-paths-waving-arms stuff, a few frames at a time. Seyfried (of Big Love and Mean Girls) is a radiant object and can sing, but I’d like to forget the others—especially Brosnan, whose singing is the best imitation I’ve heard of a water buffalo. Streep has a sweet voice and knows how to use it (although she can’t save a song as terrible as “The Winner Takes It All”), but it’s sad to watch a perfectionist remove part of her brain and try to convince us she’s having a jolly time.

Largely forgotten since its release in 1961, Kent Mackenzie’s transfixing 72-minute drama The Exiles arrives like a message in a bottle—restored (by Ross Lipman at UCLA), in lucid black-and-white, a warning we ought to have heeded but didn’t want to hear (or, in the case of younger moviegoers, never had the chance to hear). The director regarded it as a documentary, and this is a rare case in which something shaped and partly scripted might qualify. The film centers on young Indians who’ve moved from the reservation to downtown Los Angeles, where the men drink and pick up women and drink and play cards and drink and sing tribal songs and drink and dance and drink and fight and drink. Nothing in the narrative is especially surprising, in part because so many filmmakers have absorbed The Exiles, either literally or by osmosis. But there isn’t a banal shot: not the faces of each man hunkering over a beer bottle or giving himself to a tribal song on a dark hill overlooking the metropolis, not the traffic tunnel with its unearthly glow under the neighborhood where these nomads can never seem to put down roots. The Exiles opens with photographs of tribal warriors before their tribes were decimated and ghettoized, but what follows can’t be reduced to a victimization plaint. The protagonists, Homer (Homer Nish) and his wife, the pregnant Yvonne (Yvonne Williams), speak in voice-over about their dreams for a better life, but she is deposited at a downtown movie theater and he embarks on an all-night odyssey in search of a wholeness that will never come. You can only brood on the near half-century since The Exiles was shot—and be grateful that someone went to that place and captured it all.

The Dark Knight
Directed by Christopher Nolan.
Warner Bros. PG-13.

Mamma Mia!
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd.
Universal. PG-13.

The Exiles
Directed by Kent Mackenzie.
IFC Films. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.


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