Both the role and its realization by Ledger represent the most credible portrayal of a movie villain in films that are based on comics, or that, like in the James Bond franchise, are usually cartoonish. (Consider that the typical Bond villains are what Mike Myers, most notably, parodies in his Austin Powers films, in the portrayal of "Dr. Evil." These quintessential miscreants who, often, seem to be motivated by world domination and or great riches, nonetheless seem to be inexplicably single-minded, blindered, and one-dimensional in their badness.) By contrast, the role of the Joker as written in "The Dark Knight" offers one of the most credible, well articulated visions, rationales for this antagonist's motives and actions. And, as has been more or less universally noted, Ledger's realization of the character is incredibly masterful, even nuanced, despite its obvious grotesque and larger-than-life qualities.
The soliloquies in which the Joker articulates his dedication to cultivating chaos, vs. the well-laid plans and, he avers, "schemes" of society are among the most successful articulations of a point of view and impulse to dedicated psychopathic evil-doing. What's more, in a testament to the vision of those who came up with the story, this version of the character, and his lines, his apparent "backstory" is carefully crafted as a red herring. In one tete-a-tete, the Joker explains one origin of his disfiguring scars, which suggest a mocking grin. But wait--while threatening co-star Maggie Gyllenhaal with a similar disfigurement, the story is entirely different. While some films legitimately seek to humanize real or fictional figures as, while perpetrators of horrific crimes (think of "Monster's" characterization of murderous prostitute Aileen Wuornos, for one), the device in the case of Ledger's Joker rightly deprives him of an unwarranted overhumanization. At the same time, the writing and portrayal keep this Joker in the realm of something potentially real--still ineluctably human--as opposed to Jack Nicholson's and Cesar Romero's past, overly stylized and cartoonish creations. Obviously, the awesome makeup and costume design for the character support these effects, but they would hardly do the job on their own.
Other than on those merits, the film is good, maybe very good; not great--typically, not worthy of the hype and anticipation these kinds of presumed blockbusters generate. And I say that with no lack of regard for Chris Nolan (I love "Memento") and the film's other creators. It's just that I, perhaps more than more typical moviegoers, just can't work up much genuine buy-in to these comics-based extravaganzas. In this case, the film is long, and, at least for me, has too many interim climaxes. Of course, the first capture of the Joker is just too easy to be final ... but the number of reversals and resurgences and climactic twists that require heroic resolution and which propel the plot ambulations, were, to me, eventually emotionally deadening. At least the film discards some classic story and film-making conventions in order to further the story--like the kind of breakthrough risks "Seinfeld" took in its willingness to have really bad things happen to people, as the setup for the conceptual humor of the initially revolutionary sitcom. (E.g., an attractive and sympathetic character's experiencing significantly disfiguring, botched cosmetic surgery, as a foil for George's and Kramer's neurotic propensities. Numerous other examples could be adduced.)
Ultimately, while the film seems less hokey and far-fetched than most in the genre--less so even than the plot line of, and caricatures populating, Nolan's initial venture in the franchise--it finally descends thereto with the fate of Aaron Eckhart's crusading do-gooder prosecutor character, Harvey Dent. ("Dent" as in his chin cleft?)
Further, while the overall arc of the movie offers to explain how Batman came to devolve from a mere outlaw vigilante theoretically wanted by the law but really covertly valued by Gotham as a whole, into a true outcast--a reviled figure who is perceived as having made too many moral compromises in order to give the apocalyptic city not "what it deserves, but what it needs"--it churns through a lot of bodies, special effects and somewhat wearisome exposition and development getting to that moral. Christian Bale's somewhat flat characterization seems hardly to carry that theme--his flippancy as Bruce Wayne and menacingly gravelly voice when he's Batman just don't flesh his character's demons out in a meaningful way.
While the film is mildly satisfying in view of that theme (like the last-produced "Star Wars" movie was in its depiction of Anikin Skywalker's transformation into Darth Vader), the true enjoyment comes from watching Ledger. Fortunately he's on screen a great deal.
I stayed through the credits to make sure there was a gesture made to his loss and memory. There was. It is, in the universe of filmed entertainment--with the thought-provoking lessons it can, at its best, offer--quite a loss indeed.
Esquire magazine among others cites Javier Bardem's performance as creepily implacable killer Anton Chigurh as Oscar-worthy, but it seems to us it is the character that is so prepossessing, not that its portrayal is so stupendous. More demanding, it seems to us, is the role of his quarry, Llewelyn Moss, played by a perhaps under-appreciated Josh Brolin. Woody Harrelson provides a sliver of quasi comic relief, with his overconfident swagger. Kelly MacDonald surprises in her skilled, convincing "Texas trailer trash" (Carla Jean Moss) after notable stints as Peter Pan in "Finding Neverland" and as Evangeline in "Nanny McPhee." But it is Tommy Lee Jones' Sheriff Ed Tom Bell who provides the moral and narrative axis or at least center of the film. The weariness in his old lined face and the woeful humor in his voice offer a near-complete character study, and the dreams he relates before the sudden soundtrack-less appearance of the closing credits are perhaps less meaningful in their content than as the film's final framinga bookend paired with his opening soliloquy about the seeming incomprehensibility of modern brutal criminality, the worst in human nature having taken some kind of quantum leap to much worse still.
Cinematically, Jones' visage seems organically part of the bleak, parched Texas landscapebut so do the mortality, blood, maimings that we see on the screen. There's nothing here like "Fargo's" garishly unreal, burgundy-colored blood spattering the pristine snow as Steve Buscemi is disposed of via wood-chipper. Bardem's character seems to represent, not a sinister force of nature, or the cosmos, in his bizarre sense of the fatalistic source of his actions, so much as a force of evilwhere a corrupting, dominating malevolence has contorted the very landscape into grotesque barrenness (like in C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy). In this world, he's a pestilence quite other than the chthonic (and thus still inherently Gaian, or Manichaean) evil represented by the motorcycle dude and the Snoats brothers in the Coen brothers' "cult" classic, "Raising Arizona." (Likewise, Jones' recounting of his dreams in "No Country" echoes the Nick Cage's final speech as the hapless H.I. McDunnough in "Arizona"though kind of inversely: i.e., instead of "Maybe it was Utah ..." ... "Maybe it was Shëol ...") (For more film-osophy of this ilk, as well as "Fake News," humor, satire, news and opinion, visit the online version of our print publication, or google it and click on the link for its blog.)
We agree that the dialogue in this latest effort, especially the titular lead Juno's (Ellen Page), gratesbut for different reasons. Edelstein likens it to "bad Neil Simon," with bad throwaway jokes litteringculminatingeach scene. There is some similarity to Simon's staginess, in that the dialogue here is speechy and unerringly witty. The real problem is that, as clever and amusing as it all is (especially Juno's lines), no actual 16-year-old talks like that. (Except my own teen-age daughter, and, probably, a 20-year-old too-smart-for-her own-good young woman I recently met, who's probably been a wise-ass impervious to any views but her own for at least four years ...) And, if one does, I think she qualifies to be a legitimate romantic interest of an older man (or at least, an "inappropriate" buddy), as turns out here with Jason Bateman's character Mark, the henpecked half of the couple who are adopting Juno's budding offspring.
This film is hard not to like, as Page is both sassy and endearing, with a genuineness the false-sounding lines can't fully obscure. But it's hard to cheer for the ending, where over-controlling Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) is set to raise the baby but without a husband by her side representing sanity, humor and offbeat balance. And, in a phenomenon remarked on in this space before, Juno, like many women, is her own worst enemyassuming, out of whatever insecurities, that the boy she used for first-time sex didn't want an ongoing relationship. Edelstein worries that, especially with the likely popularity of this film with the 'tween girl demographic, we're about to get a society based on a whole generation of Junos. I don't blame him in his concern, but he's a little late: It's already in the works. (For more film-osophy of this ilk, as well as "Fake News," humor, satire, news and opinion, visit the online version of our print publication, or google it and click on the link for its blog.)
"Take's" gist was, crime victim (Driver) is on a road trip, on her way to witness the execution of the guy who caused her loss. That guy--what a loser. Much of the film follows his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Which gets worse and worse that way as a consequence of his bad choices, granted. Like in "Devil." But. The narrative arc of convergence of convict on victim or victim on convict is paralleled by the story-within-the-story of the convergence of the two on the infamous day of the crime.
We didn't stay for the Q&A, but I wanted to ask the producer or director, did you see this as an anti-death penalty film? Because it seemed to me to say, "If the victim can forgive the transgressor, what business does society have insisting on its vengeance?" (As a hyper-rational guy, I recognize that's an emotion-based argument, not a logical one. I have other, unassailable reasons for opposing the death penalty.)
Anyway, an excellent film; maybe, along with "The Visitor," the best of the fest. And, an awesome acting job by Jeremy Renner, as the down-and-out, reprehensible, hapless Saul. I'm just damn glad they didn't name him that because he was going to have a "Paul on the road to Damascus come-to-Jesus conversion" as his execution drew closer. In fact, he put up a pretty good fight, argument, against the chaplain sent in to give him final rites, solace, what-have-you. A fine film--almost caustic to watch, but full of integrity, intensity. (For more film-osophy of this ilk, as well as "Fake News," humor, satire, news and opinion, visit the online version of our print publication, or google it and click on the link for its blog.)
The film's axis is a massacre at a high school by a disturbed young man--hardly an untopical event these days. It follows a couple of female, teen-age best friends up to and well beyond the bloody events of that day. Rachel Evan Wood plays "Diana," one of the two girls--a restless, sexually active, alienated, self-willed and somewhat confused young woman, whose friend Maureen (Eva Amurri) presents a counterweight to those qualities.
Uma Thurman plays Wood's character as a grown-up--an art history teacher with a husband, a child, and traumatic memories of the day that changed everything. We'll avoid spoilers, since right up to the end of this film, the viewer has been led to look at the film one way, and it may not be the right way. That said, there's a "Sophie's Choice" element at its crux, though one less gratuitous in its framing and in its consequences than I've always considered that hinge of Styron's book (and of the film made from it) to be. However, against the decisive turning point represented by the massacre, the film examines what seem to be a number of uniquely female preoccupations and dilemmas: For instance, there's the question of sex. Men are generally all impulse, expressing the conatus of Leibnizian philosophy; women are the gatekeepers. Women, adolescent girls deal with the good girl-bad girl issue: They can say no, and are expected by parents, society to do so; but how long can they and keep a man they may want? So they deal with guilt. They deal with the pressure, and then, often the rejection, even by the same source of the pressure--young boys who then taunt their conquests as "sluts." The blood of their period is akin to, can lead to, the blood of an abortion: this is the blood of Christian-viewed sin, not of "the redemptive blood of the lamb." Another item: Men, for the most part, hold power of life and death over other living, "born" people--they send others to war, to their executions. Women hold that power over the unborn. Maybe it's a fair division. But maybe no one would like to have either power, if they could avoid it.
Women are taught, socialized to make a relationship, a marriage, a home. If those things fall apart they are told, in myriad ways, to look first to themselves to blame. Even with a philandering husband. Even with a child who's simply programmed to behave, act out, resist, rebel; among other reasons, as part of the eternal cycle of mother-daughter conflict. As Thurman's Diana says, "I thought if I cared for my child, helped my students, loved my husband, everything would be all right." But doing those things, the right thing, doesn't necessarily control outcomes, bring ultimate happiness.
As an art teacher, the lessons Diana is teaching focus on Gauguin--like the art references in Philip Roth's early, seminal novel Goodbye Columbus. I'll leave the point of that reference, that inclusion, for the viewer to explore for themselves, as with the Blake poem Diana reads to her daughter to soothe her to sleep. Likewise the ubiquitous imagery of water in the film: in one scene, young Diana, getting wet in the spray from a fountain, wonders where the boundary is between its mist and the air it is dissipating into. Where is the boundary between consciousness and not-being? Between life in its vibrancy and the ebbing away of life? (Echoes of Richard Linklater's "Waking Life.") There are a few false notes, as in the somewhat hokey dialogue about "the heart being the strongest muscle in the body." Some other witty exchanges reminded me of the improbably smart, ready-for-the Dorothy-Parker-book-of-quips utterances by Ellen Page's precocious teen in last year's phenomenon "Juno." But they're infrequent, and dissolve quickly in the potent, larger mix. The title and final plot twist are in fact a hoary cliché--and a clue ... though one most people, I feel, are unlikely to crack. (Another clue is to be found in the soundtrack, in an old Zombies song heard repeatedly, sometimes in different forms, in the film.) At least, I didn't--the whole weight, momentum of the film are so forceful on behalf of a different supposition. A gorgeous, thoughtful, disturbing film, one that--like "Being There," last year's "Perfume," "2001: A Space Odyssey"--you can hardly imagine being anywhere near as effective in a non-visual medium. Which is why we have film these days, and why, in The Midtown Messenger at least, you'll find it analyzed as the serious "literature" it is. (For more film-osophy of this ilk, as well as "Fake News," humor, satire, news and opinion, visit the online version of our print publication, or google it and click on the link for its blog.)
The opening PFF work was "The Visitor," starring Richard Jenkins, late of HBO's "Six Feet Under" (though we think of him fondly from his role in "The Witches of Eastwick," in which he beats his wife to death with a fireplace poker, and from various installments in the Farrelly brothers' oeuvre). Tom McCarthy, writer-director of the phenom "The Station Agent" a couple years ago (set in Newfoundland, NJ, where yours truly hails from), played a disgruntled, ambitious reporter at the Baltimore Sun in the final season of "The Wire." In that role, he not only gets caught up in cop Jimmy McNulty's fabricated murders of homeless men (staged to get funding to resume investigations into other murders, put on ice due to city budget cuts), but, egged on by an out-of-touch mentor, goes on to completely make up spin-off "Dickensian" articles about the life and travails of the homeless.
Needless to say, the guy's likely got a lot more integrity than the characters he plays, as his films display a humanity and sensitivity to the subtleties of character and situation that commends them highly, among other factors. We spoke briefly to McCarthy after his film's screening, and told him it struck us as almost "Missing" meets "Year of the Dog." "I was in 'Year of the Dog,'" he replied. "Oh, yeah, you were the (Laura Dern's) husband"--part of an overprotective, politically correct parental duo, and not the one who wears the pants--we acknowledged. We elaborated on our comparison, saying we found his and Mike White's film to have had a similar affectionate, slight distance, yet a closely observant feel in regard to their characters, as well as a running, lightly humorous tone, even in the face of sobering realities. McCarthy acknowledged the point, while adding he still found the comparison strange. (That's all right--we find his characters despicable ... though again, it's probably a testament to his talent that they are so viscerally dislikable, as he's probably nothing like them.)
More apt, perhaps, is the comparison to "Missing," by Costa-Gavras. A political drama like his iconic "Z," "Missing" is about events surrounding the 1973 coup that toppled popularly elected Marxist leader Salvador Allende, replacing him with the CIA-backed villain Augusto Pinochet. In the film, Jack Lemmon plays an American businessman called to Chile by his daughter-in-law (Sissy Spacek), when his son gets caught up in the political turmoil. Lemmon plays one of his classic "dawning awareness" roles, as in "The China Syndrome," where he goes from a complacent faith in the system to a grudging realization that the institutions he believes in are not always so benign. Likewise, that evolution loosely describes Jenkins' character's progress in "The Visitor," as he deals with problems related to the immigration status of some new friends. But, like Peggy the bereft secretary (Molly Shannon) in "Year of the Dog," Jenkins' character, Walter Vale, is also experiencing a loss of connectedness to places, people, work that have barely been his mooring for years--and so he finds new sources of life, passion and belonging.
From its soundtrack to the cinematography; pacing, casting, acting and story, "The Visitor" is virtually flawless. Speaking of casting, Danai Gurira as Zainab, reminds us, perhaps oddly, of Samantha Morton. Maybe it's the shape of her closely cropped head, like Morton's as the lead empath in "Minority Report'; then again maybe it's something in her eyes. But Morton in Jim Sheridan's fine "In America" plays a role more similar to Gurira's here, as an illegal in New York City. Too, Haaz Sleiman as Tarek is perfect as one of those eager-to-please, happy-go-lucky, live-for-the moment kind of people, who endears himself to the viewer every bit as much as he does to Walter. But we were fondest of Jenkins as Walter, who is a little formal, doesn't smile much, is sometimes tough on others yet self-excusing, and so has to endure others' (especially the female characters') guardedness, even hostility well after he has really shown himself to be kind, gentle, caring, generous--in his low-key yet self-respecting way.
This is a film into every aspect of which great thought and all deliberate care was injected. In his notes on the film, provided along with its entry in February in the Almost Famous Film Festival (A3F) in downtown Phoenix, Busch discusses the levels of meaning contributed by his choices of settings, props and the composition of the shots. Apart from the narrative level in which a hit-man with a conscience is enveloped in ever-shifting mazes of intrigue, there are larger philosophical themes at play, contrasting the ways in which we care for one another (or don't) with the cold indifference of Nature, the universe--with its lack of intrinsic meaning or purpose. This film stood head and shoulders above other A3F entries, many of which held their own as typical fare of a lower-tier short film festival. (We say that in all fondness for it, as a past judge for, sponsor of, and writer about the event.)
Regrettably, Busch had the time and resources to shoot only an hour-long movie, though his original script would have resulted in about a 95-minute feature. Regarding the abridged length, how can anyone, as a viewer, know or even guess how keeping the originally conceived elements of a unitary, coherent work of art would affect it? Possible lulls in the middle of this film are as easily a result of things not hanging together and propelling forward as well as they might, due to the missing elements.
In our opinion, this film cries out to be realized at its full intended length. Watching it, we seemed conscious that there were additional plot twists and nuances of character development and the characters' relationships that were missing from the screen and that we, and the film, would have benefited from incorporating.
However, we have found the somewhat opaque title less than apt, not very conducive to piquing initial interest in the film. Granted, it references a meaningful moment and catch-phrase in the film, but it's a bit esoteric and also doesn't trip too easily off the tongue.
Back to the performances: Yes, there may be a few stiff moments, but it's correct to dwell more on the predominant, noteworthy turns on the part of Busch's comrades from "The Wire" (and the one or two outside cast, such as Marisol Chacin), who clearly aren't chary with their talents. They evidently believed in both Busch and the material, and brought to bear their full acting skills in realizing characters the viewer buys into without reservation.
This is a film we'd have been glad to pay to see, and if there's a benefactor out there with the resources to help see it brought to full feature length, we'll be glad to sing its further praises to them. In the meantime, attendees at other film fests in which it's entered are in for a treat. And we WILL pay to see it when it graduates to merited commercial status. Republication of preview and folo articles on A3F and "Sympathetic Details" can be found by googling the name of our print publication, The Midtown Messenger, and clicking on the link for its blog.