Archive for the ‘Heath Ledger’ Category

Ledger Oscar nominated, but commercial flicks ditched for artsy hooey

January 22, 2009

Despite a brave forecast Wednesday in USA Today that Oscar voters finally might see the light and meld their alleged “we love the world” populism to their choices for 2008 nominations, such was not the case Thursday when the noms were announced.

Again, smash-hit popular entertainment got little respect. And what else is new? Sure, Titanic and The Return of the King won big at both the b.o. and on Oscar night. But largely the 2008 slate is like so many others: heavily weighted toward artsy fare released at year’s end, and slanted against popular fare which dominated ticket sales and boosted the industry. After all, what does the public know?

So The Dark Knight and WALL-E both got shut out of the best-picture race, in favor of such overrated no-hit flicks as The Reader and Frost-Nixon. Frost-Nixon? Is Ron Howard getting rubber-stamped? Sir, I’ve seen enthralling political dramas such as All the President’s Men, and you, Frost/Nixon, are no All the President’s Men.

Sure, the late Heath Ledger was nominated as best supporting actor for The Dark Knight, and the film got eight nods in all. But except for Ledger’s, it got no major award noms. And the best WALL-E could muster, beyond an inevitable best animated feature nomination from a thin field, was an original screenplay nod.

So forget about cheering for a popular favorite, unless you dig Benjamin Button’s absurd story of a man aging backwards while Gumping through time, or you’re hooked on the game-show heroics of Slumdog Millionaire. And while this year’s slate may not be as esoteric as last year’s, Oscar viewership again should decline, as film fans with the wacky, dim-witted idea that WALL-E and The Dark Knight represented better filmmaking than the allegedly weighty The Reader or Frost-Nixon get stiffed.

I’m leaving Milk out of my rant because I believe in that movie, regardless of its level of popular appeal. It’s not only beautifully made, with another fantastic performance by Sean Penn, but its late-’70s story of intolerance vs. inclusiveness is somehow more timely and significant for today than anything else in the best picture field.

Still, that race now largely comes down to a plurality vote for “Best Pretentious Pseudo-Artsy Flick Released in December.” Come on.

My rant can’t be complete without dissing supporting actress nominee Penelope Cruz for a shrieking performance in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Bad movie, bad performance. Sorry, Woody — I love ya. But this was recycled, contrived, lame, preposterous, unfunny and unremarkable, with countless missteps. Who cares about a bunch of losers strangely unencumbered by the need to make money or face real responsibility while they indulge in artistic whims and in lust/passion with the depth of a tuna sandwich?

But huzzahs to Robert Downey Jr.’s supporting actor nod for Tropic Thunder. He won’t win — in true Phantom of the Paradise mode, Ledger’s a lock — but Downey was as good as anyone on screen last year, as a dude playing a dude dressed like another dude and sometimes looking like the first dude but really being — oh, forget it. But he was great — and he even held fast to his character’s pledge  not to drop character till after the DVD commentary! Robert, I salute you. With this and Iron Man, you rocked in ’08, and Tropic Thunder was the year’s funniest film.

Not that that distinction will ever win anyone a best picture Oscar — what do humorists know? We’ve got dead presidents to resurrect, guys to be born old, and snob appeal to embrace over entertainment power.

Yes, that’s the Oscars — again — rejecting the sheer show-biz oomph on which the industry depends in favor of pretentious Important Pictures which bore to the point of snores. Oh, well — at least we’re done with The English Patient.

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Heath Ledger’s ‘Dark Knight’ Golden Globe came with too high of a price

January 12, 2009

Some post-Golden Globes thoughts:

Does anyone truly believe Heath Ledger would have won a Globe for playing the Joker in The Dark Knight had he not died tragically? For my own answer, please consult Brian De Palma’s film Phantom of the Paradise and its opening song, Goodbye, Eddie, Goodbye.

My own pick for the award would have been Robert Downey Jr. for “playing a dude playing a dude disguised as another dude” in Tropic Thunder, a far more entertaining experience than the agonies and miseries of  The Dark Knight. But what was up with Downey’s dazed and disheveled look Sunday night? I thought he was back on the wagon.

And why was it that poor Katie Holmes couldn’t attend the party? As I understand it, she was in L.A. at the time. Could it be that her alleged husband (has anyone ever seen a marriage license?) wanted to hog all the spotlight for himself whenever cameras went his way? Just wondering.

Note to the Hollywood Foreign Press: You did a good job of breaking Kate Winslet’s dry spell — too good. One Globe would have sufficed. Two was overkill. Share the wealth (if you want to call it that).

And note to self about such “wealth”: Whenever actors go uncontrollably ga-ga over an award, as Kate did, feel sorry for them, because pity is better than contempt. It truly is sad to see a grown woman who knows damn well she’s a fine actress treat the plurality decision of a small group of journalists and hacks like it saved her life. Hey, Kate, I love your work, too. But get a grip.

All of which reminds me of an interview I once did with Campbell Scott, whose father, George C. Scott, once famously snubbed the Oscar awarded him for Patton. When I mentioned a festival award which Campbell’s small film at the time had received, and how that might help its art-house run, he replied, straight-faced, “Yes, and as you know, Bruce, it is all about the awards.”

Unrelated note: What it’s really all about is happiness, or even better, hilarity. With that in mind, check out Rhino’s new release of the six-hour PBS documentary Make ‘Em Laugh, an exhaustive look at comedy and its place in America. Comedy may not get the respect of heavy, depressing dramas which win awards for ceaselessly reminding us of the same glum truths, but where else will you find Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Charlie Chaplin and Jon Stewart in the same place? Now that’s entertainment. Enjoy.

DVD review: Heath Ledger is great, but ‘The Dark Knight’ is action-misery

December 9, 2008

Will Heath Ledger win a posthumous Academy Award for best supporting actor for his portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight, the sixth modern Batman movie, new on DVD today from Warner Bros.? A better question is, should he?

This shouldn’t be a sympathy vote. Ledger either deserves an Oscar, or he doesn’t, and much of that entitlement may stem from your personal preference for his film. In my mind, as good as Ledger was, this role and this performance are not Oscar caliber. Like the movie, they’re too one-note. To me, far better work was done by Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder, who showed layers and nuance, made me laugh out loud repeatedly (a feat) and was amazingly charismatic. But comedies get no Oscar respect, so that’s just me dreaming.

Besides, The Dark Knight wasn’t about Ledger’s acting or the Joker’s deranged, smudged “smile.” Rather, it was about action-misery.

What’s that? Well, it’s not action-adventure, where an action film is enjoyable, thrilling or regaling, but without being repellent. In the case of The Dark Knight, a PG-13 rating got slammed hard up against an R, and for almost 2 1/2 hours, the film engrossed more than entertained, punishing its audience by relentlessly killing people, torturing people, placing innocents in constant peril, blowing things up, setting fires, threatening small children in front of their mother — you name it. Sorry, but this is not well-rounded storytelling. And as impressive as it is in execution, The Dark Knight is less entertainment than an ordeal.

Such punishment comes from the film’s ceaseless cruelty, savagery and murderous bloodlust. Is there any offsetting humor, heart, romance, character development or even wit? Forget it. In fact, though I greatly admire Christian Bale as an actor, what did he do here but phone in a mindlessly guttural and growling performance as Batman, and a pretty-boy stoicism as Bruce Wayne. Despite being given two roles in effect, the guy hardly registers in either one.

Yes, Ledger is great, so that makes up for it in part. His Joker doesn’t joke, but rather makes psychopathic mayhem just to prove a point: We’re all as sick as him. Only it doesn’t quite turn out that way.

The remaining cast is largely about marquee value actors (Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman) getting little to do, though the impressive Gary Oldman has a blessedly larger role as Commissioner Gordon, perhaps the most heroic man in the film. In fact, Oldman seems to have more screen time than anyone. Aaron Eckhart also is good as the handsome Harvey Dent, if not so much as the grotesque Two-face, which is more of a makeup performance than acting. And Maggie Gyllenhaal is woefully miscast as a woman who’s supposed to inspire romantic passion in him and Wayne.

So it’s easily Ledger’s picture to run away with, and run he does, eclipsing Jack Nicholson’s wacky, crazy-funny turn in the same role with the kind of tortured, twisted character to which Danny DeVito aspired as the Penguin in Batman Returns. Basically, both men respond to childhood abuse with mass murder in adulthood. Not exactly an even karmic trade, but at least you know where they’re coming from and why they’re so wicked.

But as good as Ledger is, and as powerful as The Dark Knight’s action can be, I just can’t embrace this moviet with the critical and box office consensus that it earned, because for me, it’s action-misery, not action-adventure, and the world is miserable enough now without wallowing in the worst of it. Director and co-writer Christopher Nolan took the graphic novel source material far too seriously and squelched any sense of pleasure or fun. Right now, we need fun — at least, I do, and if you can’t have fun watching a movie about a guy in a bat costume, something is wrong with that movie.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I respect this movie for its craftmanship, I love the legacy of its title character, and I really wish I could embrace it. If you did — if this suits you — then great, enjoy. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t. I never say that. Besides, we’re all entitled to our opinions — including me.

Now, as Downey’s character-within-a-character says in Tropic Thunder, “We cool?”

Despite rush to judgment, Heath Ledger’s ‘Dark Knight’ was no death sentence

July 17, 2008

In today’s world, certain terms and phrases get used far too much — if I never again hear the lame monkey-hear, monkey-say “at the end of the day,” I will be a happy man — while some get used far too little. And among the latter is the term, or the concept, of “reserving judgment.”

Reserving judgment means to wait until you can weigh more facts, if not all of them, and then make a judgment based on them. It’s a calm, reasoned, intelligent approach which is all about truth, unlike the term’s opposite, which is “rushing to judgment.”

But in this Web-driven world of flash-fire rumors, rushing to judgment is about all most people do. They hear that Heath Ledger is dead and pills were in his room, and they rush to the judgment that he died of an overdose of recreational drugs. Or they hear he’d just played a twisted, dark Joker in The Dark Knight, and they rush to the judgment that Ledger was overly affected by his role and perhaps suicidal.

It’s only later, after autopsy reports surface, but long after the initial rumors and rush-to-judgment frenzy, when we learn that, no, Ledger wasn’t tripping fatally, nor did his mental state — apart from insomnia — make him roll up into a tightly-wound suicidal ball. Instead, he apparently unwisely took too many doctor-prescribed medications, and he took them in the wrong combination, and he succumbed — accidentally.

Of course, even that now-old news doesn’t stop more dark rumors from flying now that The Dark Knight is poised to open tonight on the heels of a full-bore marketing campaign.  And as Ledger’s intense performance emerges, some again speculate — or rush to judgment — that the dark role he played had its own dark role in his demise.

As Gary Oldman, Christian Bale and others on the Batman shoot assert, no, that didn’t happen. They say Ledger was chatty, grounded and fine between takes, not brooding and remote. And Oldman would know something of this, having launched his own career with obsessive immersion in characters, but then evolving from that.

I’ve interviewed Oldman twice — in person for JFK, when he was indeed tightly wound, and then again years later for Batman Begins — and I can tell you that he’s no longer a tortured actor, but just an actor — and a damn good one, yet without becoming completely absorbed by roles. He seems to have learned, as Anthony Hopkins likes to put it, that the key to good acting is simple: Just say the lines.

Nonetheless, Ledger death rumors are flying again, as so many people — too many — rush to judgment about which they know very little. Don’t confuse us with the facts, they seem to say, we’re busy rumor-mongering! And if it concerns a poor man who died young and no longer can defend himself, then so much the better.

Yes, it’s a sad world, but it’s the world we live in. And all we can do, in our own small way, is to show some shred of restraint.

Yes, ask questions. Yes, show concern. Yes, seek understanding. But in doing so, especially for big issues such as Heath Ledger’s sad demise, we also should reserve judgment, instead of needlessly, blindly and hurtfully rushing to it.

In death, let’s not make Heath Ledger the new Anna Nicole/Britney/Lindsey

January 25, 2008

OK, this is a DVD blog, but sometimes you have to vent, right? And in my case I need to, regardless of timely DVD street dates.

Besides, DVD — unless it’s out of print — is forever. And in its small way, it helps actors live forever. You always can find them somewhere, out there, in a film or a role that made you love them. And that’s no less true for the late Heath Ledger.

Unfortunately, what’s in the air now for Ledger isn’t fond reminiscince but foul exploitation. Suddenly he’s the new Britney, Lindsey or Anna Nicole — a troubled young celeb over whom our most crass culture will obsess for as long as the trail will take a posse of paparazzi, gawkers and entertainment reporters to follow.

This galls me especially because I’ve spent much of my career as an entertainment reporter, for mass-media print and its web components. I’d like to think it was legitimate reporting, including an interview I once did with Ledger about his latest film (at that time, Ned Kelly), not his most private and personal life.

But for many, entertainment reporting is only what they see on TV, via tabloidish entertainment “news” shows which are anything but, or online, via gossip-geared websites which have a place in the lives of celebs, and us — but to a point.

And it’s these sources which are turning Ledger’s death into what it shouldn’t be: a Britney-ized celeb obsession of callous intrusion and self-serving sensationalism. As Entertainment Tonight’s Kevin Frazier puts it, they are “working the story.” Oh so true. A man dies tragically, and they are “working” it. 

Look, if a show wasn’t breathlessly brandishing Ledger’s love life when he was alive, why suddenly do it when he’s dead? Because shows like E.T. need cows to milk, and Ledger’s tragedy is their new Bossy. Milk her dry and they’re back to the waste-of-time tragedy that is Britney — not that she’s ever gone away. Tastelessly embedded in E.T.’s phony-solemn coverage of Ledger’s demise has been a who-cares, seedy session with her paparazzi groupie exploiter and his disturbing facial hair. Wish there was an effective “mute” button for video as well as audio. Then I could unflinchingly wait to catch Kevin when he returned, this time “working” Ledger’s death by airing a day-old clip of him appearing by remote on Larry King Live, where he announced  he knew nothing about autopsy results. That’s not news, of course, and neither is it news that Frazier was on King’s show. But that thar cow’s gotta be milked somehow. NEXT: The will! Work it, baby!!!

Online is no less guilty, which is how it should be. Instant response means instant false rumors, which later shake out before a daily show needs to air them. And so TMZ needlessly floats bubbles only to burst them (Mary-Kate Olsen was not involved!) while training its unforgiving video-eye glare on grieving Michelle Williams, Ledger’s former girlfriend, and their infant daughter as they arrive in New York. Let’s put an arrow on that image to make sure they’re spotted. Great! Now don’t forget to put the red “R.I.P” tag at the top of the entry. It’ll show we care!

“Rest in peace”? If E.T., TMZ or any of us truly wanted to let Ledger rest in peace, we’d put just two things on a justifiable to-do list: patiently await medical reports on  what happened, and say a prayer for Ledger and his loved ones. Beyond that, we shouldn’t enable or embrace a media feeding frenzy that makes a defenseless person’s past life everyone’s business. Instead, let’s give him and his sad survivors space and hope they truly can live, or rest, in peace.   

Heath Ledger dead? Clues may lie in ‘Candy’

January 23, 2008

Talk about out of touch and off the radar. News story after news story on Heath Ledger’s sad death in New York City has gone on and on about his upcoming role in Batman movie The Dark Knight and his Oscar-nominated work in Brokeback Mountain. And story after story has surveyed his short career from his breakout part in 10 Things I Hate About You to his recent channeling of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There.

But nowhere have I seen mention of the recent film that especially should be noted in this tragic context — a film I reviewed in 2006 for the Houston Chronicle — a film called Candy.

Shot in his native Australia, Candy starred Ledger and Abbie Cornish as a young couple fiercely in love with each other — and with shooting poison into their veins.  Geoffrey Rush played their older sugar daddy and carefree connection.

The film is an overly familiar yet disturbing look at drug abuse, and it includes one overdose death. But it’s also disturbing for the way it allowed its leads to remain beautiful and romantic despite what should have been repellent devastation.

For junkie enablers like Rush — and this film —Candy was like having your cake — or “candy” — and eating it, too. It showed Ledger’s virile, young, artistic character as a guy who could get as high as he wanted, and as often as he wanted, and still survive. Why? Because he was the movie’s hunky leading man and big star doing an art-house film — and because the script said so.

Now Ledger, as a virile, young, artistic man, is dead, with a pile of pills found near his body. And in that context, why has it not occurred to anyone — beyond me, it seems — that Candy could have been a case of art imitating life to come, but without the vital wakeup call? Did Ledger’s character influence his own choices, or did his own life influence the character? Those are heavy things to consider, and as the facts emerge in this tragedy, they may become increasingly pertinent. Yet Candy is being ignored by the clueless media reporting Ledger’s death, despite its wrenching relevance. More people than Ledger’s junkie character need a wakeup call.

Not to be confused with the 1968 sex farce featuring Marlon Brando, John Astin and Ringo Starr, Ledger’s Candy is available on DVD.