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Posts Tagged ‘Heath Ledger’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 31st 2008:

And finally, just when you thought you could get through an entire column without one of those movies showing up… yes, it’s Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which has finally rumbled into public view trailing the kind of rapturous notices most producers would happily cut off a limb to receive – and I’m not inclined to disagree with the consensus on this occasion.

For those of you recently returned from a holiday on Neptune, this is another tale of goings-on in Gotham City. The crusade against crime launched by the Batman (an apparently laryngitic Christian Bale) and Lt Gordon (Gary Oldman) seems to be bearing fruit, in the form of the city’s new fiercely idealistic and dedicated District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) – even if he is dating Batman’s old girlfriend Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal). However, the city is about to be plunged into a nightmare as Batman’s continuing harassment of the mob forces them to accept the assistance of a demented psychopathic genius calling himself the Joker…

Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker has, for obvious reasons, attracted a lot of attention – but one would hope that this would have been the case anyway, as he is utterly mesmerising. The Joker is hilarious and terrifying at the same time: he does a piece of business with a pencil that left the audience I saw this movie with trying to gasp, groan, and laugh at the same time, while later on there’s a scene where he wanders out of an exploding building in (comically unconvincing) drag that’s simply jawdropping in its audacity and confidence. This is the first screen version of the character who can credibly take on Batman in a physical confrontation, something Nolan fully exploits. Even more impressively, Ledger manages all this without seeming obviously hammy or over-the-top like some Nicholsons – sorry, I meant to say actors – who have played the part in the past. He’s aided by a script which allows the character a chance to actually develop in the course of the movie, progressing from a (relatively) simple insane killer to the more complex Joker of recent comics.

But, surprisingly, he isn’t allowed to dominate the film – although he does rather eclipse the movie’s other classic villains, who either make cameos (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance from Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow) or show up rather near the end. Eckhart gives an intelligent and plausible performance as Dent, and it’s a bit of a shame he doesn’t get more room to display all the facets of the character. The biggest miracle of all is that Christian Bale, who as Batman doesn’t get to properly use his voice or most of his face, isn’t reduced to an onlooking cipher as happened in the 90s Bat-movies, although his performance is necessarily understated. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman show up from the last movie as well, and give neat demonstrations of how to steal scenes from the younger actors.

The technical virtuosity of Christopher Nolan’s direction shouldn’t really have surprised me as much as it did, but this is probably simply because he gets Batman right in a way other directors have never managed. For example, rather than being merely a menacing icon waddling around in inch-thick rubber, here Batman is a convincingly agile and skilled martial artist. Nolan also opens the movie out to a global scale, giving his hero a brief but typically energetic encounter with the Hong Kong Triads on their home turf. There seemed to me to be a bit less reliance on Bat-gadgets than usual, too, with the obvious exception of the new Batpod – which looks undeniably cool but struck me as rather silly in both name and concept. Such is Nolan’s command of the medium that, for a few shocking minutes, he even had me believing that he’d been allowed to permanently and properly kill off one of the central Batman characters. The only real weakness in Nolan’s direction, in fact, is his slight awkwardness when it comes to comic relief: Caine and Freeman have no problems delivering their one-liners but elsewhere his editing is a bit too staccato.

This is a piddling little criticism considering the colossal level of crash-bang-wallop the movie delivers, especially when coupled to its interest in the deeper morality of the issues involved. This finds its most obvious articulation when the film repeatedly asks how a principled man can hope to counter one wholly without moral compass, and intersects rather neatly with a meditation on how one can repeatedly confront evil without becoming contaminated by it (one would have expected this Nietzschean line of thought to turn up in a Superman movie, but never mind). Implicit in the film is the notion that it’s the mere existence of Batman himself that has conjured all the maniacs he must battle into existence, and that all the death and destruction which occurs is ultimately his fault. On this level, The Dark Knight isn’t an especially cheerful movie: its view of human nature for most of its running time is so relentlessly bleak that when it does attempt to offer a ray of hope it almost doesn’t ring true.

So, yes: we have a new and very strong candidate for the title of best superhero movie ever (not that this isn’t much more than just a superhero movie). One is obliged to wonder just how on Earth Nolan and company can possibly top this one (not least because most of the classic Batman villains aren’t really usable for various reasons – my money’s on the Riddler showing up next time, though), but they’ve already repeatedly demonstrated that no-one else is better qualified to try. Highly recommended.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published in December 2003:

It’s a terrible thing to have to say, but sometimes a film can be too thoughtful for its own good. The movie I’m particularly thinking of at the moment is Shekhar Kapur’s The Four Feathers, a new adaptation of A E W Mason’s much-filmed novel about loyalty, redemption, and swashbuckling heroics in 1880s Africa.

Well, I say ‘new’, but this is a film that originally came out in the US in 2002, where it promptly tanked. Clearly despairing of it, the distributors plonked it on the shelf for a year before giving it a distinctly low-key release on this side of the pond. It’s now, at the time of writing, making occasional appearances on the UK art-house circuit, which is where I caught it.

It’s the story of young British army officers Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger) and Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley) and their eminently nubile friend Ethne (Kate Hudson), who are all having a ripping time in England in 1884. Yes, they are all American or Australian, but never mind about that. Harry and Ethne get engaged, but following close upon their happy news come some grim tidings – Moslem extremists led by the Mahdi are causing all kinds of mayhem in the Sudan, and Jack and Harry’s regiment is being sent off to sort them out. The prospect of fighting the Mahdi makes Harry a bit mardy, and he suddenly realises he doesn’t want to be a soldier after all. His resignation results in him getting sent white feathers (the symbol of cowardice) by all his friends bar Jack, and what’s more Ethne chucks him too. But after the regiment’s gone, Harry decides he perhaps would like to do his bit after all, and gets on the next boat to Port Said in search of redemption…

This is a lavish, magnificently-photographed movie, with a huge scope. In fact, it’s possibly the most expensive art-house movie ever made, because it certainly isn’t the classy blockbuster the producers were probably hoping for. I can imagine the first screening, and the looks of bemusement and despair on the faces of studio brass as they slowly realise they’ve spent $80 million on a film which is too slow and thoughtful for mass consumption, but too hokey and dim for critical acceptance.

How can a film be simultaneously thoughtful and dim? Aha, my friends, it all boils down to the choice of director. Coming from an Asian background himself, Kapur doesn’t adopt the ‘British Empire, stiff upper lips, huzzah for us!’ approach to the characters that previous versions went for. Instead he’s much more critical of the imperialist mindset, and it doesn’t take Marshall McLuhan to work out that a story about a global superpower’s reckless foreign adventurism is just begging for a metaphorical interpretation (something else that probably didn’t help the film’s US box office). Most of the British characters are arrogant and racist, while Faversham’s native sidekick Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou, who’s rapidly becoming the poor man’s Morgan Freeman) is less his faithful servant than a noble source of wisdom and insight.

While the film has some of the most stunning cinematography I’ve seen in recent years, it’s also filmed in an unexpectedly dour and naturalistic way, lacking the gloss of more conventional action movies. It’s rather overlong, too, with a distinct sag in the final third. And, to be honest, the story itself rebels against Kapur’s reinterpretation of it – this was never meant to be a critique of colonialism or an examination of social controls in the class system. It’s supposed to be about some stand-up chaps who go off to dark-ish Africa and jolly well hit the Mahdi’s thugs for six. But the swashbuckling and derring-do never quite take flight (although there’s a very impressive battle partway through) and the redcoats and pith helmets of the British soldiers (not to mention the presence of Angela Douglas in the supporting cast) do summon up memories of Carry On Up The Khyber, absolutely the last thing this film needs.

To be fair to them, the leads do their best with their roles. Ledger does his ‘troubled’ face a lot (here’s a man crying out for the chance to play the lead in a romantic comedy), Bentley is actually quite good, especially as he has the potentially very dodgy task of playing someone who goes blind in the course of the film, and Kate Hudson… Ah, yes, well, Kate Hudson has terrible trouble with wandering accent syndrome. For most of the film, she sounds as if she comes from somewhere on the border between Bermondsey and Reykjavik. Either that or her tongue was shot full of muscle relaxant before every take.

This is a thoughtful and sincere attempt at a new take on an old favourite, but the problem with The Four Feathers is that this is one story that trenchantly resists any attempt at a revisionist interpretation. It’s a jingoistic romp or it’s nothing. A full-on, rousing, fairly dimwitted version of this story could conceivably have been a big hit – but Kapur’s attempt at something more cerebral and even-handed really misses the point and appeal of the tale. Worthy, and not without its moments, but ultimately rather dull.

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From the earliest days of the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 20th 2001

When exactly did Hollywood decide the Middle Ages were so filthy? I blame Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Once upon a time we had lovely shiny knights in primary colours, but now every excursion to medieval times seems to take place in a sea of mud with everyone either caked in the stuff or covered in rust. Well, maybe John Boorman’s Excalibur is an honourable exception, but you see my point. It certainly applies to Brian Helgeland’s A Knight’s Tale, an enjoyably frivolous movie with a bizarre new take on the genre.

It’s the story of a peasant named William Thatcher (the audibly Australian Heath Ledger). When their noble boss dies of dysentery, he and his fellow commoners hit upon a cunning plan – Ledger enters jousting tournaments (supposedly the most popular leisure activity of the age) using the deceased’s armour, and they all split the prize money. There is of course the drawback that only the nobility are allowed to compete, but fortunately they encounter a down-on-his-luck scribe (Paul Bettany) willing to forge Ledger’s aristocratic credentials. This is supposed to be Geoffrey Chaucer of The Canterbury Tales fame, so listen out for a grinding, rotating sort of noise if you live anywhere near his grave. Ledger is, inevitably, rather successful, and as the tale progresses he meets a beautiful princess (the audibly American Shannyn Sossamon, who can’t act, but is so easy on the eye she doesn’t have to bother) and a suitably wicked villain who wears black all the time (Rufus Sewell).

The pitch for this movie was probably along the lines of ‘Gladiator meets Shakespeare in Love‘ – it has the martial pomposity of the former and the broad humour of the latter. It all takes place in a generic medieval Europe that combines details from Arthurian legend with architecture from the Tudor period, and the end result is about as historically convincing as an episode of The Flintstones. But it doesn’t really need to be as this is no more or less than a fun romp. There are no great surprises or insights but a lot of good jokes and the odd touching moment. There’s rock-solid thesping support from Mark Addy as a squire, Bettany’s performance as Chaucer is witty, and Laura Fraser is good as a female blacksmith who joins the gang. If it has a real flaw, it’s that one joust looks very much like another and the director runs out of original ways to film them quite early on. I enjoyed it a lot, far more than I expected to, as I only wound up going to see it because the cinema wasn’t showing Rush Hour 2.

Not long after, I trundled along to see Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge, and the two films have a good deal in common. Like A Knight’s Tale, Moulin Rouge is a period piece, and also like A Knight’s Tale, it features a supposedly historical character in a supporting role. It’s the story of naive young writer Christian (Ewan McGregor in his best role for some time), who in the year 1900 moves to Paris. He befriends a group of Bohemian artists, including Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo) – that’ll be another spinning celebrity corpse, then – who want to put on a show at the famous (and titular) Moulin Rouge nightspot, run by Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent). A misunderstanding during a visit to the club leads to Christian and star attraction Satine (a glacially beautiful Nicole Kidman) falling in love, after she initially mistakes him for a rich Duke who’s considering financing the refurbishment of the club. When the real Duke (Richard Roxburgh, who does a pretty good impression of the late Terry-Thomas) turns up he agrees to stump up the cash provided he gets, ahem, exclusive access to Satine, if you follow my meaning. Will true love triumph?

Moulin Rouge is, and let’s be honest about this, completely insane. This being a Baz Luhrman film, restraint and naturalism were escorted from the cinema before the opening credits rolled. For the first twenty minutes I felt pinned back into my seat by the overwhelming, frenetic audio-visual onslaught – crash zooms, jump-cuts, slo-mo, freeze frames, crane shots, mixes, Luhrman uses them all – but eventually either the film calmed down a bit or I acclimatised to it. Probably the latter, with hindsight, as the story slowly changes from broad farce to tragic melodrama as it goes on, the transition being flawlessly executed. It’s all been art-directed to within an inch of its life, zips along with elan to spare, and in its early stages is often very funny. Most of the jokes are broad, though, and many of the laughs come from deliberate incongruities – when McGregor starts singing the theme to The Sound of Music, or Kylie Minogue’s cameo as the Absinthe fairy (barely credibly, she’s dubbed by metal legend Ozzy Osbourne).

This use of deliberate anachronism is the most striking similarity between A Knight’s Tale and Moulin Rouge. In A Knight’s Tale it takes a number of forms – at the ‘Jousting World Championships’ all the peasants behave like football supporters. Chaucer, as a herald, hypes up his master as if he’s a WWF wrestler. Several contemporary songs feature on the soundtrack. My favourite moment of the movie is a deliriously exuberant sequence at a banquet where everyone starts gettin’ on down to David Bowie’s Golden Years. But in the end it’s just a device to boost the fun quotient in a film that has absolutely no aspirations to be taken seriously.

There are lots of pop songs in Moulin Rouge too, deliberately famous ones – songs by Elton John, by Queen, by Nirvana, and – once again – by Bowie, who should have a good week on the royalties front. We get to see Jim Broadbent in a ginger shock-wig and (one hopes) padded fat-suit doing a full-on song and dance version of Madonna’s Like A Virgin, for example – just take a moment to mull that image over. Admittedly, the musical director appears to have been Darius from Popstars, so weird are some of the arrangements, but these are still familiar, stirring tunes, and, crucially, they’re central to the story’s development. However, the reason for their use, as opposed to a more conventional means of character development, is unclear. Is Luhrman trying to say something about the power of popular song? Is it a strange emotional shorthand? Is it an attempt to draw parallels between the decadence of the Moulin Rouge and that of our own society? Or is it just done purely for laughs and novelty value? It’s really impossible to tell. More importantly, so studiously artificial is the conceit, along with the rest of the setting, that it creates a real distance between audience and story. This is by no means a bad film; it’s visually astonishing, the performances are great, and the music’s often stirring – but it’s very hard to engage with the characters and story on an emotional level. One is left with a whirling, staggering, multicoloured dervish that captivates the senses but doesn’t stir the passions. Like one of its’ characters, Moulin Rouge is beautiful, but with a cold heart. This was probably inevitable, but it’s still a shame.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 18th September 2003:

Any doubts that the cinematic seasons are continuing their eternal cycle, and that we are currently in the arse-end of Blockbuster with Oscar Bait just around the corner, should be dispelled by just one single glance at the sort of films coming out now and in the next few weeks. Yes, we’re getting Hollywood’s ‘sleeper’ hits (ie movies that have proven much more profitable than predicted), a few off-the-wall projects, and – of course – those big-budget extravaganzas that were about as well-received as a bomb in a playground. Although The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or whatever it’s called this week, has in fact been put back to October.

This sort of confusion over naming and release dates is normally a pretty good sign that the studios have given up on a movie and are only releasing it to scratch back what money they can. And this in turn should give all right-minded filmgoers fair warning to avoid this sort of film like the plague, because while Hollywood frequently over-promotes a bad film, it very rarely buries a good one. But, mainly because I enjoyed A Knight’s Tale, the last film of all the principals concerned, I went to see Brian Helgeland’s latest project anyway. This film has the title of The Sin Eater in Britain and The Order in America, but – I have no doubt – will soon be known worldwide as Turgid Cobblers.

In this film Heath Ledger and Mark Addy play priests who are members of an obscure ghost-busting sect of the Catholic Church. Addy is Oirish, Ledger is – inevitably – Australian. When their former mentor dies in peculiar circumstances, both head back to Rome to see what’s going on. Ledger brings along his nutty not-really-girlfriend (Shannyn Sossamon) too. Well, it turns out the Vatican is trying to cover up the activities of a supernatural being known as the Sin Eater (played, supernaturally badly, by Benno Furmann), a Dorian Grey-ish fellow who goes about devouring the sins of rich and unrepentant old men, thus allowing them to go to Heaven and him to live the life of Riley. (Sins, you may be interested to learn, look rather like transparent versions of the squiddies from The Matrix.) Furmann wants Ledger to put aside his priestly vows and take over from him as Sin Eater. Ledger, on the other hand, quite fancies putting aside his priestly vows and engaging in sins of the flesh with Sossamon, some of which may well involve… well, you get the idea. Meanwhile, Peter Weller spends a lot of his screen time shouting in Italian with a bag over his head.

Well, the soundtrack and cinematography in this picture are both good and atmospheric, but the rest of it is nearly all unmitigated rubbish. This is one of those films you emerge from gob smacked that no-one involved didn’t realise just what an atrocity was in the offing. The script is excruciatingly poor: not only does it contain stupid blunders (Sossamon escapes from an institution in New York, and is actively hunted by the NYPD, but is still able to fly to Italy the very next day) but it seems fundamentally conflicted as to what kind of film this is. It kicks off as a supernatural mystery, the gifted-but-troubled-loner-recalled-for-one-last-case scenario reminiscent of (for example) Red Dragon. But then it turns into what wants to be a thoughtful drama about sin and belief and redemption, before becoming a conspiracy thriller near the end. It is equally bad at all three.

The unevenness of the film doesn’t stop here. Both music and direction suggest Helgeland was aiming for a mood of realistic low-key edginess, but this is regularly destroyed by excursions into pure Buffyesque horror-fantasy. The CGI effects which punctuate the film are intrusive and over-glossy and entirely unnecessary, and it’s jarring when – after an almost entirely naturalistic opening – Ledger is beset in a cemetery by some devil-children (yes, no cliché goes unused), who turn into sparrows when he waves a crucifix at them. ‘What have I missed?’ enquires Addy, upon appearing. ‘Oh, demon-spawn,’ shrugs Ledger, rather in the manner of someone recapping the most recent episode of Coronation Street. This is before we even get onto the film’s belief that Catholicism and its more arcane theology is somehow innately fascinating to an audience, the horrible clunking expository dialogue, or Furmann rambling interminably on about redemption and faith and truth and all that sort of thing. Even the old exercise/exorcism gag gets wheeled out.

The quality of the script is fully reflected in its realisation. A murky and incoherent plotline is matched by scene after scene set in a gloomy half-light: they appear not to have access to electric light bulbs in Rome. The acting is pretty choice, too: Sossamon is hippy-drippy, and Weller clearly doesn’t give a damn about trying to remain credible. Addy initially gets the role of comic relief/best mate, and does his usual sterling work despite a terrible accent and rubbish dialogue. But by the end of the film he’s reduced to staggering around, pop-eyed, shouting a lot. Ledger, on the other hand, portrays ‘troubled’ very well, but one is forced to suspect that this is not a brilliant portrayal of a man realising he’s made a mistake becoming a priest, but simply a man realising he’s made a mistake appearing in this film and forgetting to act. Ledger’s one bravura moment comes near the end, when – look, I’m going to give away part of the climax now, but trust me, you don’t want to see this film anyway – he comes home and stumbles upon Sossamon, who’s dying. Ledger delivers the following choice dialogue (as closely as I can recall it, being too busy sniggering at the time to write it down): ‘Awrggh. Awrrhhh. Hrrraaahhh. Baby! Baby! Hweagh. Hrraagh. Come back. Wrrrragh. I – I’m not a priest any more. Hrrrgh.’ The results are, needless to say, unforgettable.

The Sin Eater, or The Order, or whatever you want to call it, basically boils down to the collision of pretentious arty horror with commercial Hollywood action fantasy. It’s not even compellingly or entertainingly bad like some other films I’ve seen this year, it’s just wretched and half-baked, frequently bordering on the incoherent (I suspect at least twenty minutes has been cut). On this evidence, Helgeland can’t do brooding, moody, grown-up drama. Clearly trying to make a film in the style of The Omen, he’s actually come up with something that has more in common with Father Ted – only without the gritty realism, obviously. Papal bull.

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