In 2008, Christopher Nolan created one of the greatest sequels in movie history with The Dark Knight. Not only did the writer-director keep the integrity of the characters and story of his own Batman Begins, but he introduced new characters that have become not just memorable, but practically iconic. Aaron Eckhart’s portrayal of Harvey Dent/Two-Face is certainly spectacular, but it’s Heath Ledger’s award-winning performance as the Joker that has gone down as outright legendary. Creating a memorable villain is hard enough — making him terrifying is going to a whole new level. Though Heath Ledger may not have been the Joker the fans (at first) wanted, he was the Joker they needed.
The biggest problem facing the Joker is getting stale. He’s one of the comic book world’s most popular villains, and has been killed off, jailed, or institutionalized more than anyone else. Even after 80 years since his inception, the Joker has always been a safe bet when the Caped Crusader needs a showdown. His eccentric, flashy personality clashes with Batman’s brooding stoicism, and his motives and personality have very rarely changed. His toothy grin, hyena laugh, and garish clothing have more or less remained, despite some exceptions (especially in the reboot with the face mask), and even though Cesar Romano’s clown, Jack Nicholson’s gangster, and Mark Hamill’s maniac had differences, they didn’t vary too much from one another; they stayed in that safe “Joker” concoction. However, what Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan accomplished was something spectacular: they changed the recipe
Andrea Romano, famed casting and voice director who was one of the forces behind Batman The Animated Series, The Justice League, and various other DC animated properties, explained the Joker voice the best in the voice acting documentary I Know That Voice.
“Every single actor that worked for me playing the Joker, and there have been many, brings their own twist to it, and that’s what you want. If you want someone to just do Mark Hamill, then you bring Mark Hamill in.”
When playing a character that has been done before, it’s vital to not change it so much that it’s unrecognizable, but just enough that it stands out. This task can be daunting, because when it comes to geek culture, change is scary. Changing origin stories, updating powers, or even breaking up couples can split fans. When word got out that Heath Ledger — rom-com pretty boy — was going to play the next Joker, fans weren’t happy. No one thought that this quiet, good-looking actor could portray such a mad and wild character. This concern escalated when his new, disheveled look was introduced to the world. He wasn’t the tall, lanky, dapper gentleman with villainous cheekbones. He was slinky, dirty, and not very debonair. This major shift was a bold choice that many people were reluctant to accept. However, after months of criticism during pre-production, the movie finally came out and audiences were floored. The Joker stole the show, and the love and respect for his performance hasn’t changed.
This Joker was different. He still had a maniacal laugh, adored chaos, and wore a purple overcoat cartoonishly overloaded with weapons, but he was gross and unkempt. He licked his lips like a pervert, he wore makeup (which cracked throughout the film), and his cadence was less sing-songy. It fluctuated and hit notes that weren’t quite human. He wasn’t as charming or funny as previous incarnations, and terrified more than his predecessors. If they removed his makeup, his iconic purple and green wardrobe, and changed his name, he probably wouldn’t even be identifiable as the Joker. But, for all intents and purposes, he worked.
Villains can fall into the unmemorable category if they are relegated to being a side story, and thus, adding the Joker in Suicide Squad was an odd choice. He was supposed to be one of the main foils, had insane behind-the-scene tales, and had a close connection to Harley Quinn — yet he played second fiddle, and seemed to simply be thrown in for the need of a ‘Joker.’ Though Heath Ledger’s Joker was also categorized as a supporting actor, he was still a primary focus of the movie. He was the big bad, the one taunting Batman and the forces of law in Gotham City. Watching him wreck the downtown streets of Gotham City would had an impact despite the story not following him every step of the way; chaos for chaos sake can be scary.
The Dark Knight trilogy can be described as a crime trilogy that happens to have super heroes; despite the occasional “fear gas” and super-tech, these three movies are very grounded in the real world — no monsters or magics in sight. As such, the Joker’s white skin and green hair are makeup, and his scars are real — especially that grim Glasgow grin. He bleeds, he screams, and fights like a normal (but trained) human being; this is a character people can see fit into this world. In the animated series, the Joker’s goofy gadgets, hair brained schemes, and hyena pets work because the laws of the world dictate it. Bringing in those elements to a live-action film would have stood out too much, and so the The Dark Knight Joker could only work if he behaved like a psychotic human — not a cartoon character.
The term “narm” can best be described as when a scene is intended to be serious, but the result is cheesy due to poor execution, sappiness, or absurdity of the situation. When a scene is supposed to be scary but makes people laugh, it fails. Heath Ledger gives us one potentially outrageous scene where he wears a nurses outfit and blows up a hospital. In another, he sits calmly in a jail cell, ironically applauding while Gordon gets a promotion. He raves like a mad dog off his leash, slobbering and growling all over a man dressed like a bat. From any other actor, these situations could come off looking laughable, but thanks to his establishing character moment — the moment he took off that mask, revealed his other ‘disguise,’ and spoke those words with that new Joker voice — he proved that he was a force to be reckoned with. Ledger gave the world an uncanny valley performance without going over the top; he wanted to frighten, and it worked.
If filmmakers want to ensure that future DC movies will do the character justice (or injustice) and be successful, then they need to take a good look at what Heath Ledger did in The Dark Knight: give the audience a familiar character but change it up, then make sure the character fits into the laws of the movie’s universe. How hard can it be?
Tom Hanks Soars in ‘A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood’
Every film about a famous person needs a journalist as a way into their private lives; at least, that’s what the last few years’ worth of biopics might have one believe. Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood follows this now-tired convention, but her film is miraculously the rare one that actually benefits from this peek into her subject’s life. She’s created a comforting yet complicated portrait of Fred Rogers that gets at the essence of his unshakable kindness, while also examining how such an unimpeachable figure impacted the lives of others.
Rather than with starting with Rogers, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood begins with burnt-out journalist Lloyd Vogel (The Americans’ Matthew Rhys, playing a version of the writer Tom Junod). He’s encountered great success and has a position at Esquire in 1998 — when print is riding high, and the internet hasn’t yet devoured most of the media ecosystem. But his unvarnished and aggressive investigative pieces have made him plenty of enemies, even if they did garner him awards. Looking to help him out, Lloyd’s editor assigns him a 400-word smidgen of a profile of Mr. Rogers (a magnificent Tom Hanks), who is about as far as possible from the kinds of people he usually writes about.
Tom Hanks looks nothing like Mr. Rogers, but he’ll charm even the most cynical in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
After some grumblings, Lloyd dutifully sets up the interview, only to get a call from Rogers himself, who is happy to start talking right over the phone. Once the journalist arrives on set in Pittsburgh, the television host puts the latest episode’s shoot on hold just to greet Lloyd and spend some time getting to know him, even though he’s working on a tight deadline. We don’t actually learn much of the back story about Rogers (viewers looking for that should seek out Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? ), but Hanks has the remarkable ability to give us far more valuable insights into his inner workings.
Though he looks absolutely nothing like Rogers, and barely even sounds like him, Hanks manages to affect the same cadences that made his on-screen delivery so mellifluous. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, presents a version of Mr. Rogers who is delicately and empathetically attuned with everyone around him. He’s a seemingly selfless person who takes more time out of his days for others than anyone could be expected to, and Hanks has a way of asking leading questions that present radically simple ways of living in harmony with those around us. I’m not exactly a movie crier, and even I found myself misting up when Hanks reminded Lloyd (and the audience) just how easy it is to be kind. Rhys’ Lloyd can’t understand this, and is initially convinced that there must be a darker inner-Rogers. However, anyone who has seen the documentary will know that what you saw was what you got with Mr. Rogers.
This is why the choice to use the journalist angle actually works for It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. A more conventional summation of his life from childhood to death would have been trapped by the constancy of Fred Rogers; the whole point of his existence is that he was always good and kind, and never deviated from that script. By focusing on a fictionalized Junod, we get to see how Rogers ingratiated himself into a single person’s life, which is more interesting than a never-ending list of his good deeds.
Hemingway’s style in most of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is fairly dry and reserved, which perfectly captures the aggressively unglamorous nature of Mr. Rogers’ show. She adds in a fun departure from her previous work by creating a fictional framing device that treats the entire film as if it were an extended segment on the TV show. She also borrows the series’ charming miniature neighborhoods, and uses them for all of her establishing shots and transitions. When Lloyd flies off to Pittsburgh, we see a little model jet zoom away from New York City as model cars shuffle through traffic. But it’s her ability to coax great performances out of her actors that is her defining strength. Hanks is excellent (as expected), but she even draws a compelling performance from Rhys, who’s stuck playing the movie’s most difficult role. He could easily have been seen as merely a distraction from Mr. Rogers, but (most of the time) his solo scenes still have plenty of depth.
In 2019, a figure like Fred Rogers seems like something we dreamed as a society, rather than a real human being. His focus on forgiveness and understanding seems at odds with the moral certitude that affects certain corners of the internet. The Mr. Rogers of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a memory of simpler times, but also a call to arms to bring back some of his unbridled kindness. It may not seduce the most cynical among us, but it’s worth a try.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 10, 2019, as part of our coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival.
‘The Kingmaker’ is a Probing Look at the Wife of a Despot
The Queen of Versailles, released back in 2012, was one of the best documentaries of the decade. Directed by Lauren Greenfield, it followed Jackie Siegel, the trophy wife of David Siegel, founder of the timeshare company Westgate Resorts. The film depicted the family’s construction of what was to be the largest residential home in the United States, which quickly went awry once the 2008 financial crisis hit their business hard. The documentary showed that Greenfield has a unique gift for understanding the lives and pathologies of the super-wealthy. Seven years later, Greenfield is back with The Kingmaker, another documentary portrait of a rich lady — one who, like Jackie Siegel, also had a cartoonishly evil husband and a weakness for both opulent residences and rare exotic animals.
The Kingmaker is a portrait of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines from the 1960s to the ’80s. Imelda is known in the popular imagination as the supportive wife of that country’s dictator Ferdinand Marcos, for frequently meeting with world leaders, and for her extensive collection of thousands of pairs of shoes. This one is set on the other side of the world, but is just as instructive, not to mention entertaining.
Greenfield’s film catches up with the now 90-year-old Imelda, and depicts her life today as she luxuriates around her various estates, reminisces about late husband, tells stories about meeting with leaders from Reagan to Mao to Saddam, and pushes the political career of her son, known as Bongbong, who ran for vice president of the Philippines in 2016.
For the first half hour or so, The Kingmaker looks like an attempt to humanize and even rehabilitate Imelda’s image. She opens up about her mother’s death and her husband’s serial infidelities; he claimed he was constantly sending her around the world because he feared a coup, but really it was so he could conduct extramarital affairs.
We start to think this is, if not a puff piece, the equivalent of one of Errol Morris’ docs, where he gives a controversial political figure a chance to have their say while also challenging them.
But eventually things turn, and The Kingmaker lays out that the Marcos family had in fact engaged in massive human rights improprieties, from torturing political dissidents to rigging elections, to a scheme that entailed razing an entire residential area in order to build a zoo of exotic animals which were imported from Africa via bribes. Perhaps it was a clue early on when Imelda revealed how well she got along with the likes of Richard Nixon, Moammar Khadafy, Mao Tse-Tung, and Saddam Hussein.
The Marcos family also plundered billions from their own people, which paid for real estate all over the world, priceless art, as well as that famous shoe collection (The Kingmaker shows, among other things, that the Philippines could really use an Emoluments Clause.) What Imelda has to say now (she only ever refers to her husband as “Marcos”) makes it clear that she was not only complicit in the dictator’s crimes, but continues to defend and profit from them to this day.
And from what we see of the Marcos’ son, Bongbong, he’s a uniquely untalented and uninspiring politician who has inherited all of his father’s corruption, but none of his charisma. The Kingmaker also ties in with the modern-day politics of the country, as its current president, Rodrigo Dutarte, is shown as the true heir to the Marcos tradition, depicted as a Trump to Bongbong’s Jeb Bush.
The Kingmaker also recalls Joshua Oppenheimer’s great 2013 documentary The Act of Killing in the way it demonstrates how national myths are established and carried through the generations. We see schoolchildren reciting why the imposition of martial law was actually a moment of national glory.
Greenfield’s last film, last year’s Generation Wealth, was a big step down, lacking any focus and for some reason concentrating a great deal on people from the porn industry. But The Kingmaker is a return to form for the filmmaker, as it shows she’s honest enough to speak ill of her own subject.
‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past
Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.
After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.
The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.
The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.
However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.
A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.
Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?
The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.
‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.
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