Tag Archives: Heath Ledger

Dark blight

Now that the fanboy frenzy has died down, I went to see The Dark Knight Rises and found it to be incoherent junk — steroid-pumped corporate filmmaking at its worst, with some good moments undone by a disgraceful script, bungled action scenes, and the feeling (confirmed by the end) that director Christopher Nolan went into this movie devoid of any ideas that hadn’t already been wrung dry for The Dark Knight in 2008. It even made Prometheus look better in retrospect, and if there’s a more damning thing to say about a movie this year, I don’t want to hear it.

I don’t know what was worse: the ADHD storytelling formula, which required Nolan (who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother) to pull a rabbit out of his cowl every ten minutes (Fistfight! Explosion! Good girl becomes villain! Villain becomes good girl! Kung fu brawl! Flying thingamabob chased by guided missiles! Fistfight!), of the indifference with which characters and situations were thrown around.

Nolan was always a curious choice to revive this film franchise, and while the box office has endorsed him many times over, the oddity remains. Though he is a past master at brainy puzzle-pictures like Memento and Insomnia, Nolan is a terrible action director, unable to stage a fight or block out a set-piece so the viewer can make out what’s going on. The bravura opening sequence aside, everything in The Dark Knight Rises flashes by too quickly: fights are over before you can see what’s happening; chases destroy mile after mile of real estate without any sense of direction or purpose; crucial dialogue is delivered in such a rush that you can’t understand why everyone is exchanging Significant Looks.   

These were also problems in The Dark Knight, but they were rendered moot by the care Nolan took with the performances, and Heath Ledger’s definitive rendering of the Joker, arguably the greatest pop-culture villain of all time. Any villain (or actor) trying to follow in Heath Ledger’s footsteps was in for a hard time, but Bane was a legitimately interesting choice of bad guy. Even with his face half-covered by what looks like a modified radiator and his voice processed to sound like a talking Cuisinart, Tom Hardy conveys fearless intelligence and resolve using only his eyes and body language convey. But Nolan undermines him at every turn: in one scene Bane is a charismatic leader, calling his men brothers and persuading them to die for his plans; in the next, he’s a shirtless Darth Vader, casually murdering subordinates who displease him. His backstory is reduced to a few hasty lines of dialogue, barely audible beneath Hans Zimmer’s hammering score (with this film, Zimmer deposes John Williams as the Wagner of the multiplexes), and in the end he is literally flicked aside for a new, late-arriving villain not nearly as interesting. Unlike its predecessor, The Dark Knight Rises has no time for revealing character moments: there’s nothing here as poignant as Rachel’s acceptance of her imminent death, or the scene in which a prisoner’s moral authority cancels out one of the Joker’s plots.       

Internet debates over the political meaning of summer blockbusters are now a feature of the dog days, and some right-wingers have proclaimed The Dark Knight Rises to be an endorsement of free market whatevers. Truth to tell, Nolan pours so many conflicting elements into his formula that all political meanings are negated, except for the Fascist Lite notion of an infallible masked vigilante taking down bad guys without hurting a single innocent bystander.

There are a lot of talented actors at work in The Dark Knight Rises, and the probability that they got to collect fat paychecks for their work is the film’s sole redeeming quality. I hope they put their money to good use, because after this fiasco, they have a lot to live down.

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The bad guys

I’m pleased to see Steerpike, the upwardly mobile troublemaker of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, included in this list of the fifty greatest villains in literature, but for every good one it includes the list misses a couple of great ones. Instead of Sauron, who is chiefly a looming presence in the background of The Lord of the Rings, they should have included Gollum, whose short-lived return to decency under Frodo’s care makes his return to evil all the more interesting. Or, for that matter, Saruman, whose motives as laid out by J.R.R. Tolkien make him a symbol of a recognizably modern form of evil that’s far more persuasive than a big flaming eyeball.

Since this is a list by Brits, the name-checks for Christopher Marlowe and George du Maurier are understandable, but they really missed a trick by omitting John Charity Spring, the Latin-spouting psychopath who enlivens Flash for Freedom and Flashman and the Redskins. And opening the list up to comic books (and comic book movies) also opens an only slightly smaller can of worms. Yes, Heath Ledger’s Joker was everything the Joker should be, but if he’s on the list then why not Darth Vader, or the lethal fop Archibald Cunningham from Rob Roy, or fearsome Aunt Livia from I, Claudius, or Chris and Snoop, the deeply sinister drug lieutenants in The Wire? The list could be endless.

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Two realizations

Nothing like a blast-furnace weekend to make you appreciate the cool spaces of a movie matinee. So off we went to the Loews to see Wall-E and that’s where I had my first of two movie-related realizations of the weekend.

Wall-E itself is wonderful, not only for the quality of its animation — in this, Pixar continues to set the standard — but also for the wit and economy of its storytelling. Roughly the first third of the film is devoid of dialogue as the eponymous robot scuttles about a deserted, garbage-suffocated Earth, and yet the film conveys a great deal of information through purely visual means. I’m always annoyed when a reputed masterpiece pf “pure cinema” like Blade Runner needs to open with a blurt of text exposition — “It is the year blah-blah. Mankind has created artificial humans . . .” — when all that information could be conveyed more gracefully through character and visual clues. It’s not simply a failing for science fiction films, either: plenty of mainstream or historical films open with dopey mini-lectures (“It is the time of the Gang Lords. It is the time of Al Capone.”) instead of turning images and story into tools of discovery.

Stanley Kubrick manages to convey some rather sophisticated concepts through the wordless opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood tells us everything we need to know about Daniel Plainview without a scrap of dialogue. The first words are spoken roughly a half-hour into the film, when Plainview starts to con his victims, but by then the essence of the man has been conveyed. Wall-E uses the detritus of consumer society as a vehicle of exposition, and it does so beautifully.

I also like the way Pixar films build their emotional peaks through generosity and big-heartedness instead of ham-handed pounding at people’s sentimental buttons. It would have been easy for Wall-E to score cheap satirical points by having the bloated, mechanically pampered humans cling to their infantile existence; instead, given a chance to experience life directly, they leap for it and Wall-E becomes genuinely inspiring. There are plenty of scenes exploiting the little robot’s E.T.-like cuteness, but when the story requires something more, the film rises to the occasion. Think of the way Ratatouille gives its villain, the cadaverous food critic Anton Ego, the chance to sum up its story: “Not anyone can be a great artist, but great art can come from anywhere.” I don’t know about you, but to me that delivers a bigger, better punch than umpteen listenings of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” And when the creatures in Monsters, Inc. learn it’s more powerful to engage people’s imaginations instead of just relentlessly exploiting their fears, I wonder if the Pixar crew didn’t have a crystal ball that let them warn us about the incoming Bush administration.

I also saw The Dark Knight, and can confirm that everything you’ve heard about Heath Ledger’s take on the Joker is true. I though Batman Begins was a decent enough relaunch, though frankly I have trouble remembering all the arcane training stuff that took up so much of the running time. The Dark Knight stands head and shoulders above its predecessor, by virtue of its script and its acting. I like the way Ledger played the initial meeting with the mobsters, nervous and somewhat uncertain, yet so crazy he soldiers on with his plan. (The “magic trick” with the pencil nicely punctuates the scene, so to speak.) “Whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stranger,” the line that introduces the Joker, could serve as the omnibus title of this whole series. Christopher Nolan is still learning his way around big action sequences, but when the script (co-written by Nolan and his brother) and performances are this good, who cares? I’ve already seen plenty of car chases.

The film opens well, but at first I thought I was watching another case of a film generating pre-release expectations beyond all possibility of fulfillment. But about halfway through, as the stakes and emotions continued to mount, I realized that comic book movies are the grand opera of the 21st century, and Chris Nolan is their Verdi. (I guess that makes The Dark Knight the modern equivalent of La Forza del Destino.) The outsized emotions, the larger-than-life characters and costumes, the broad and often quite memorable music, the plots that are too ridiculous to take seriously unless you’re completely caught up in them — it’s all grand opera, folks, only the women in the winged helmets aren’t built like tanks and the men don’t look like they had to be pried loose from the concession cart before the overture. Instead of Tosca jumping off the battlement, you get Two-Face and Batman hurtling from a construction site. (Handy things, those half-completed office buildings — where would action movies be without them?) You get the music and the emotions without the long recitatives. As someone who was never much of an opera buff to begin with, I find that a good tradeoff.

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