Time for lighter fare. There are some really good movies out there...

Warning: A few minor spoilers ahead.

First up, of course, is The Dark Knight. Superhero movies just keep getting better and better, but this one is going to be hard to top. It's two and a half hours long, but I wanted to go on for another two and a half.

Heath Ledger is surely going to get a posthumous Oscar for this. If you've ever wondered what it means to commit to a part, this is it. But even more than his performance, the writing for the character was really first-rate. There are so many scenes that do a really excellent job of defining the who the Joker is and what he is all about, andhis character is consistent throughout the movie. That scene with the pencil, of course (you know the one I'm talking about.) The scene where's he's standing in front of a mountain of cash money and just burns it to the ground. The scene where he's in the hospital taunting Harvey Dent (“I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do if I ever caught one!”) They've been playing over and over in my head ever since seeing the film, along with several others I won't bother to name.

The movie does have its faults. I don't recommend thinking through the logistics of the various plots the Joker sets in motion. Suffice it to say he must be able to get around the city really fast. But that's the sort of implausibility you simply accept in going to a film like this. In addition to the magnificent action sequences (never has a semi flipping over vertically been so beautifully captured on film), the thinly-veiled political commentary about fighting terrorism was well-done and fit perfectly within the story.

Incredibly, P.Z. Myers was unimpressed:

You know nothing is sacred around here. Well, I saw The Dark Knight last night and ... didn't care for it. It was OK as an action movie, but the story was a mess. The plot wandered all over, and the movie seemed less interested in telling a story well than in throwing up moral ambiguity and ethical dilemmas which, instead of actually pursuing with any depth, it would resolve with a punch from Batman's fist or an explosion.

I'm he sure meant to say superawesome explosions.

On the other hand, John Wilkins overdoes it a bit:

Wow. Just... wow.

This is not the best superhero film I have seen. This is perhaps the best film I have seen for over a decade. It is replete with moral problems, Greek tragedy, farce, some serious character development, and it moves from being a crime film to a war film at some unspecified point. And it has the best film explosion I have ever seen, because it was not CGI and it actually does what it purports to do.


If grim and depressing is not your thing, then I suggest Mama Mia! What The Dark Knight did for superhero movies, Mama Mia just did for movie musicals. This is another one I wished would never end.

There's little one can say that hasn't already been said about Meryl Streep. See above, re: committing to a part. She is sooooooo good. You'd have to be made of stone not to be in tears by the time she finishes belting out “The Winner Takes it All”:

The Gods may throw the dice, their minds as cold as ice,

And someone way down here, loses someone dear.

The winner takes it all, the loser has to fall.

It's simple and its plain, why should I complain?

Gets me every time.

That scene notwithstanding, this is one of the happiest films ever made. If you're feeling down after the relentless bleakitude of The Dark Knight, this one will cheer you up. I'm still smiling about the “Dancing Queen” sequence ...

I also caught Wall-E. Sorry for the redundnacy, but this one is really, really good. Pixar does an excellent job of developing deep characters out of very simple materials. Wall-E the robot only says about three words in the whole movie, but you understand everything about his character. He is one of the most courageous and inspiring characters I've seen in quite some time.

And it's anti-commercialization message is also well-done. Daniel Engber over at Slate, however, did not agree:

But the metaphor only works if you believe familiar myths about the overweight: They're weak-willed, indolent, and stupid. Sure enough, that's how Pixar depicts the future of humanity. The people in Wall-E drink “cupcakes-in-a-cup,” they never exercise, and if they happen to fall off their hovering chairs, they thrash around like babies until a robot helps them up. They watch TV all day long and can barely read.

It ought to go without saying that this stereotype of the “obese lifestyle” is simply false. How fat you are has a lot more to do with your genes than with your behavior. As much as 80 percent of the variation in human body weight can be explained by differences in our DNA. (Your height is similarly heritable.) That is to say, it may not matter that much whether you eat salads or drink “cupcakes-in-a-cup,” whether you bike everywhere or fly around in a Barcalounger. If you have a propensity to become obese, there's only so much that can be done about it.

See the original for links.

I'm afraid this is simply ridiculous. I'll believe that your genes define certain tendencies or proclivities, so that some people will just find it harder than others to keep their wieght down for reasons having nothing to do with will power. I'll go along with the idea that an attempt to define some sort of ideal weight that is a function solely of your age and height is ultimately an exercise in arbitrariness. But the fact remains that when you see some three hundred pound man-mountain at the mall, shovelling Chicken McNuggets and french fries down his throat, there's more going on there than bad genes.

If you exercise regularly, stay away from pasta, bread and sugar, and eat lots of fruits and vegetables, you are going to lose weight. Diets often don't work, but that is because they usually involve behaving in very unnatural ways that are effectively impossible to maintain (and often impair your health in other ways). There is such a thing as a healthy lifestyle and an unhealthy lifestyle.

The various links Engber provides to back up his claims are very unconvincing. I've simply known too many formerly obese people who shed huge amounts of weight by making very simple changes to their lifestyle. Recently I ran into a once morbidly obese friend of mine who I had not seen in several years. I almost didn't recognize him now that he was at a healthy weight. I asked him how he did it. “Did you follow Atkins? South Beach?” “No,” he replied, “I just stopped eating cookies and doughnuts.”

Wall-E's critique of the American lifestyle was exaggerated of course, like all good satire. But it's basically right on the money.

As for cupcakes-in-a-cup, you can be sure that if Pillsbury or Duncan Hines figures out how to market them they will go flying off the shelves. Or as George Carlin memorably put it:

Millions of semiconscious Americans day after day shuffling through the malls, shopping and eating. Especially eating. Americans love to eat. They are fatally attracted to the slow death of fast food. Hot dogs, corn dogs, triple bacon cheeseburgers, deep fried butter dipped in pork fat and cheez whiz, mayonnaise soaked barbecued mozarella pattie melts -- Americans will eat anything. Anything. Anything! If you were selling sauteed racoon's assholes on a stick, Americans would buy them and eat them. Especially if you dipped them in butter and put a little salsa on them.

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I haven't seen TDK yet, but from the praise being heaped upon the movie I guess I'm gonna have to. The way way people are describing them as portraying the Joker (meaning both Ledger and the writers) reminds me a lot of how Alan Moore wrote the character in The Killing Joke, which is what really interests me.

In the future I really haven't been interested in seeing much more than Punisher Warzone. I'm a huge fan of Garth Ennis' work with Punisher Max, and hearing that they're deliberately modeled the Warzone movie after it has me interested.

That Slate guy seems to be missing the point entirely. They're not "weak-willed, indolent, and stupid" because they're fat. They're fat because they're "weak-willed, indolent, and stupid". They simply have no desire to do much of anything and the system is strongly reinforcing that.

Actually I think he's saying their fat because of their genetics. Or something. I'm betting he maybe has a little weight problem. His review seems a little defensive.

I liked Wall-E. The part where the captain takes his first steps was very silly.

Leni, it's they're fat, not their fat, futhermucker,

I agree completely about The Dark Knight. You just can't over-think superhero movies.

As to Momma Mia, I have absolutely no intention of seeing it. I wish I could block the commercials in TV.

Abba? Some defunct groups are best left that way.

I liked "The Dark Knight" okay, but "Iron Man" was better -- probably the best live-film adaptation of a superhero and his origin story yet, and just a darned good and well-paced movie all around, with the acting every bit as good as that in "The Dark Knight."

~David D.G.

By David D.G. (not verified) on 25 Jul 2008 #permalink

I agree on the Dark Knight. PZ was being way too nit-picky, and Wilkins was getting a little carried away. It's a really great movie, despite certain flaws, but it's not the best ever.

I have to disagree with you on one point though--I thought it was a little too long. Parts of it seem to drag if you ask me. I bet they could have shortened it by 15 minutes without losing too much substance. The whole subplot with Two-Face was, in my opinion, mostly superfluous. Ledger could have carried the movie easily as the sole villain. That's one thing that Spider-Man 2 got right that TDK messed up: when you've got a great actor playing your main villain and doing it extremely well, don't distract from him by throwing in unnecessary secondary villains.

Leni: betting he maybe has a little weight problem. His review seems a little defensive.

Here's a picture of him and here's a video of him. A bit chunky but nothing out of the ordinary.

They were cooped up on the spaceship with all those robots taking care of everything. There was nothing to do. They were idle. So, perhaps they got lazy. But the forced sedentary lifestyle provided a regimen of relaxed selection in which they suffered bone loss (did you see that scene?) and increased bulk. Yet, they did not lose their humanity in any way, once uplugged, they acted like humans in the best sense of the world, overcoming their newly evolved physical weaknesses.

Oh, and for us Europeans who grew up in the 70s - ABBA rocks!

But the fact remains that when you see some three hundred pound man-mountain at the mall, shovelling Chicken McNuggets and french fries down his throat, there's more going on there than bad genes.

So,you've never seen a 150 lb man shovelling McNuggets and fries down his throat?

The Dark Knight is an ambiguous film. The Joker kills like George w. Bush going to Iraq and getting the US Troops and Iraqis to kill each other, all without any sign of remorse. Remember Bush joking about not finding any WMDs while troops were dying in Iraq?

The action scenes are intense, and the opening bank heist is really well done and sets up the Joker's character economically. And includes one of the more memorable lines in film, "What doesn't kill you makes you stranger."

But I wasn't sold on the ending. I didn't buy the need to hide what happened to Harvy Dent from the public and the need to lie about Batman as an undercover agent of the police. It is realistic in the sense that it is the type of common self-delusion that people in power use to lie to the pubic, but I didn't like it.

There is no pure hero in this tale and I suppose that is the message of The Dark Knight. If you like films like that then it will be your cup of tea. But I like a film that suggests how to get out of the morass, not one that simply reflects it back to us.

Americans love to eat.

Uh, OK. How does this differentiate them from any other people on the planet?

By Kalia's little… (not verified) on 25 Jul 2008 #permalink

I had an extremely obese friend growing up in my teenage years. His whole family was huge; genetics. . .

They got food at the food bank. His mother would bring home large packages of king size twix, reeses, and other candy bars. They would bring home mountains of ice cream, soda, and frozen dinners. Her son had a 3-liter of coke by his bed that he would swig like an addict getting his fix.

His sister later lost all her weight and got to a very attractive size when she moved away to college and didn't have her parents bringing home the "bacon".

Sorry, but 80% hereditary my ass.

Levi wrote:

Here's a picture of him and here's a video of him. A bit chunky but nothing out of the ordinary.

Maybe it's personal to him for other reasons- it just seems a little like the man "doth protest too much". Not to mention it's a really trivial and defensive response to a common (and legitimate) criticism of American lifestyle. (A criticism that was, by the way, very light-hearted and not at all mean spirited.)

Perhaps it's a failure of my imagination, but I can't think of a good reason to bring it up genetics in this context, except in passing. The movie isn't criticizing people who make a good faith effort- it's criticizing those of us who don't. A personal struggle with weight problems seemed like the most obvious cause for the somewhat reactionary response.

Gregory Wonderwheel wrote:

Remember Bush joking about not finding any WMDs while troops were dying in Iraq?

I don't remember that. I do remember him taunting the terrorists with that stupid "Bring it on" comment, though.

If ever there was a time for god to part the clouds and smite some idiot with well-aimed bolt of lightening, that was surely it.

And you seem to have an incredibly fragile ego. Good luck with that!

If you're making a movie about a comic-book superhero, make Iron Man or Hell Boy. If you're going for psychological insight and characterization, make ..., well Silence of the Lambs (had to go back a bit).

I had the same problem with The Dark Knight which I have with Agatha Cristie novels. I didn't like or believe in any of the characters, so I didn't care who smashed whose vehicle. My interest did perk up a bit at the ferry boat dilemna, but after setting up a situation rife with dramatic possibilities, it was handled rather tritely, I thought.

So thumbs down on TDK from me, but as I have said before, variations among individuals is consistent with evolution.

On a side note, I don't see why we can't hold scriptwriters to standards of plausibility, rather than excusing magical thinking because the special effects were good. What if every critic pointed out the inconsistent premises and factual errors in every movie they reviewed? Maybe screenwriters would start taking more pains, the public would become less inclined to magical thinking and ... nah. There seems to be a rule that you can't have real people, interesting situations, big-budget special effects, and consistent premises all in the same movie.

But Leni, all of us motherfuckers are necessarily fragile.

I too thought that it was just an ordinary "B" movie, and not a very good one at that. IronMan was much better because it didn't pretend to be something it wasn't, a drama. Melodrama? Okay. Drama? Give me a break.

What was amazing, was the overhype from the critics, and you Jason, like they/you had never seen a good chase, and crash and explosion movie. This was a good visual explosion and crash experience, just without a brain (the plot didn't make any sense) or a heart (likeable characters were few and far between.) Only a pretty girl, and even she was fickle, or the lead cop.

I almost walked out in the middle when it was clear the plot was going nowhere, I didn't care for or about the characters, and the teenage boys were cheering for the most inane things on the screen, but I was stuck in the middle of one of those impossibly long rows up front in a stadium theater. At least the sound was great and the visual production superb. There had to do something with the $180,000,000.00 to make it.

There must be some great research possibilities in identifying the sudden mutation that swept the planet's human population shortly before the widespread introduction of high-fructose corn syrup into the food supply.

Somebody get me a grant!

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 28 Jul 2008 #permalink


Quite a Disney Dystopia. Lets see, Short Circuit evolves into Max Headroom, then into Idiocracy, then Wall-E. And #5 is still alive 700 years into the future 2776 AD.

Earth-bound life has died out in 2110, 666 years prior to the story-line except for hibernating seeds, and Cockroaches. The irrepressible TWINKIE (Please insert Vincent Price saying, "Aren't preservatives wonderful?!?!") has obviously fed said roach.

The Clean-up has failed, we launch an escape, and directive A113 makes the AXIOM's computer go HAL9000 on us. We mere mortals are in search of... a new world to turn into a trash heap. So we drift aimlessly in space, surviving, and not going anywhere relevant. The mother ship provides all, we don't need no steenking planet, we'll just jettison into the infinite garbage can. All part of the A113 modification.

OK, now the bad news... there is no meat. We have climbed all the way to the top of the food chain to become a vegetarian. And yet we have still become obese blobs of goo parked in front of a computer. Fortunately the ship's captain has googled Earth, and learns what we were. Fortunately, a drone named Eva finds a plant on Earth, collected by Wall-E. And, HAL err uh, Otto, yeah thats it Otto, is destined to manual override.

Welcome to the Disney vegen cafeteria. No cats, and all dogs have gone to heaven, and the computer doesn't wear tennis shoes, more like Caterpillar bulldozer tracks. Just people cockroaches, and plants. Now where's my spoon-fork?