Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Last Laugh

Hopefully we can all agree on two things.

1. It’s sad that Heath Ledger is no longer with us, both because of the entertainment he brought us as an actor and more so because of the tragedy of dying so young, leaving behind a grieving family and a young child who will have to grow up without a father.

2. His performance as the Joker is nothing short of mesmerizing, making it nearly impossible to see the actor behind the character.

But after that, the camps are divided. In one corner you have those that have happily jumped on the “definitely deserves an Oscar nomination” train.

On the other side are those that, while perhaps impressed with what Ledger did with the role, are saying that the word Oscar is only being tossed around because of his unfortunate passing.

The first group is accused of joining in with the massive hype, declaring it “Oscar worthy” simply because it's the popular thing to do right now. The second group is immediately called "a bunch of haters," having taken the opposite view JUST to take the opposite view.

I think there would be a similar division if Ledger was still alive. Those that didn’t think he deserved the nomination would be accused of being against comic book movies. Meanwhile, Batman fans clamoring for an Oscar nom would be considered less discerning film critics, having latched onto an above average performance in an average, awkwardly put together film. (Though you can be in a horribly structured film and still win an Oscar.)

Obviously it’s VERY early in the year to be talking about Oscars, so we’ll have to wait and see. After I’ve seen some other good supporting actor roles, I’ll make up my mind about whether or not Ledger belongs with them. And if he should be nominated, I’ll decide whether I’d vote for him over the other nominees.

The only two complaints I’ve heard about his role are that there was nothing to the character and that he had no arc. I’d like to address both of these things.

As far as the depth of the character is concerned, an actor can only do so much with what he’s given. He can add layers, but he can’t add actual backstory. That's where the writing comes in.

Now in this case, I actually LOVED how the Joker was written. You can’t really explain him, so leaving it a mystery makes it that much more frightening. But even though the Joker is fairly one-dimensional, that doesn’t make him boring. I was particularly impressed with how much depth Ledger gave to a character that really has nothing underneath the surface.

Look at two other Oscar-winning performances: Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh and Sir Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector. We know that Anton is out to collect the money and drugs, but we never learn why he’s the way he is. And the same is mostly true for Lector. Yes, the fact that he was a psychiatrist adds a bit of backstory, but his motivations and transformation is never fully explained. (This is pretending, as we should, that Hannibal Rising doesn’t exist.)

As far as an arc goes, Anton has none. I initially thought that Lector didn’t have one either, but a friend pointed out his relationship with Clarice. And this made me realize that the Joker has a similar relationship with Batman.

The Joker’s feelings for Batman grow throughout the film. Initially he just wants to kill him, but then he realizes that Batman gives him a purpose, something to fight against. This change is actually much more significant than Lector’s. Though Lector’s affection for Clarice grows along with their relationship, he knows from his first meeting that he would never want to kill her.

In addition, the Joker’s plan does escalate. Though some see this as pounding the message of the movie into the ground, I see it as the Joker’s revelation of what he is to do with his life: create chaos with as little interference as possible to show just how close the world was to going there on its own.

Though these are worthy criteria, I’m more inclined to judge a great performance by how much it affects me and by how much the actor ceases to be an actor and becomes the character. I’m dying to see the movie again simply to watch the Joker, since I can’t get some of his lines out of my head. While they were great lines for the most part, I can't imagine reading them on paper would have anywhere near the same effect as hearing Ledger speak them.

Add to that the aura of mystery that will forever surround this character since he’s not around to answer endless questions about his technique. While it doesn’t make Lector any less engaging, it is comical to learn that Hopkins created the voice by combining Truman Capote and Katherine Hepburn. We know Ledger dug deep (too deep, it seems) to form this character, but never knowing the full extent of that does make it more appealing, at least to me.

And I only realized the full transformation that Ledger made the other night. I was picturing the scene where his makeup is thinnest, which I believe is the interrogation scene. I tried to imagine wiping that makeup away to reveal the real Ledger underneath. And finally, it hit me. I was looking at the poster for A Knight’s Tale, and the true transformation that Ledger made really hit home.

The Joker isn’t Heath Ledger with makeup. Heath Ledger is the Joker WITHOUT makeup.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Dark Knight Always Triumphs

The Dark Knight currently holds two pretty impressive #1 spots. (Well, actually it holds quite a few, but I'm only going to talk about two of them.) While I thought the darker tone of the film would prevent it from reaching anything higher than #3 for all-time biggest opening weekend box office, it reached #1 with approximately $155 million dollars. Judging from my own screening and several comments I've read online, young children weren't present for the most part, which makes the feat even more impressive.

It is also, according to votes to date, the #1 rated film on IMDb, the ultimate source of movie knowledge. In other words, going by the votes there, it's the best movie of all time.

Does the film deserve either of these recognitions? While I'm not here to be a hater, I would like to shed some light on the issue.

I'm sure there are many people who saw the movie who would have no qualms declaring it the "best movie of all time." Though I admire their enthusiasm, I have to question their logic. True, the idea of saying that ANY movie is the best of all time is a fruitless, pointless effort, but if the majority of the world could come to a consensus, it surely wouldn't be The Dark Knight that got chosen.

Other new releases have hit similar peaks on the site, and I have no doubt that this one will eventually move down in the rankings, if for no other reason than haters voting it down simply because they can. (The Joker would love IMDb because it shows humanity at its worst.)

The film definitely raises some moral issues/questions and has some fantastic performances. I think Ledger's goes without saying at this point, but that won't stop me from writing a whole post about it later.

But I had two major issues with the film, and they sort of tie into each other.

1. It was WAY too heavy-handed. While this played into specific scenes, it was especially evident in the ending voice-over by Commissioner Gordon. He said lines VERBATIM that Lucius, Alfred, and Dent had said earlier in the film. I got the point of Batman having to be a martyr, and I liked it. But I didn't need it pounded into my skull.

2. In such a gritty realistic film with such great acting, bad acting or unnecessary comical moments really hurt it. The kids shooting and then the cars blowing up was straight out of the Michael Bay rejected script spoof. The passenger of the van carrying Dent had the worst reactions ever.

And the way things played out on the ferries was not believable to me. I liked the set up, and I actually liked what happened with the convicts. But the "innocent" people did not feel natural. No one mentioned the fact that not EVERYONE on the other ferry was a convict. There were guards and officials and crew. And there were just not enough people talking in general. And no one tried to get off only to be stopped by other people.

Putting it to a vote was pointless. Obviously "YES" is going to win. And there's no possibly way they counted over 500 votes that quickly. No one wanted to turn the key at first because they didn't discuss never revealing who actually did it or all lying and saying that the Joker blew it up.

Finally, I didn't believe for a second that that guy WOULDN'T have blown up the other ferry. He seemed like the type of guy that would totally justify it. Maybe I couldn't believe his change because I didn't think he was a very good actor.

While I didn't have a problem with the length, I can see how others did. It seemed to wrap itself up numerous times only to keep going. The stuff featuring the Joker was the most riveting, so it might not have been a bad idea to focus solely on that.

And I totally agree with a friend who said the first time we met the Joker should have been the "pencil scene." (I cringe just thinking about that.) The bank stuff was there to establish that he was stealing from the mob and that he had a total disregard for the people working for him.

We got the latter message plenty of times in the film, and the former could have been setup another way, even within the mob meeting before the Joker shows up. That's the first moment that everyone remembers, so it should have started his character with that and saved us some time.

Despite these criticisms, I highly enjoyed the film. And I am more than happy that it took the number one weekend box office spot away from Spiderman 3. While I haven't seen it, I've heard about the "emo Spiderman" stuff, and that's enough to knock it significantly down from the status of The Dark Knight. Any scene with the Joker gives you more to dwell on afterwards than the whole of the Spiderman movie.

Who knows how long it will hold onto the top spot, what with insane marketing and ticket prices ever increasing. But as long as it's there, I'm satisfied.