Heath Ledger, 1979 – 2008

I was saddened to read of the death of Heath Ledger, who had become one of my favorite actors.

On the very day of the Oscar nominations being announced for 2007, the Australian actor Heath Ledger was found dead in a Manhattan apartment. Born in Perth, in Western Australia, Heathcliff Andrew Ledger would have been 29 this April 4th. First reports of his death mentioned drugs in evidence, but no one really knows enough yet to say anything except how great the loss is. Ever since he played Mel Gibson’s son in The Patriot (2000), it was apparent that his striking handsomeness went hand-in-hand with high ambitions as an actor, courage in the roles he took and a fierce intelligence. He is likely now to be known forever for his cowboy, Ennis, in Brokeback Mountain… At his death he had just finished playing the Joker in a new version of Batman – The Dark Knight – and that may reveal fresh sides to what was a developing career.

A year and a half ago, I wrote:

Previously I predicted that I wouldn’t think much of Brokeback Mountain, the gay cowboy movie. What I did not anticipate was Heath Ledger’s hauntingly sorrowful performance. Yes, the movie is beautifully directed and the rest of the cast is very good, but it is Ledger who makes it a memorable movie. I’ve always enjoyed Ledger’s movies, but his performance in Brokeback is amazing. …

An aside. It occurred to me that, if somebody wanted to spend a lot of money and make even more, they’d hire a competent writer to turn Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead into a full season of television (roughly 22 episodes each 45 minutes in length), then hire Ledger to play Howard Roark…

I also enjoyed Ledger’s Casanova, even though the story of the movie spins a bit out of control.

The movie I’ve been most looking forward to is Dark Knight. Judging from the previews, Ledger’s performance is stunning. I’m still looking forward to the movie, but now I’ll have to watch it with more than an undercurrent of sorrow.

Film: The Prize Winner of Defiance

I was pleasantly surprised by the movie, The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio (reviewed at Rotten Tomatoes), which I’d never heard of till I saw the video on the shelf. Based on a true story, it follows a woman living in the ’50s and ’60s who keeps her large family ahead of her careless husband by entering — and winning — contests that involve writing clever marketing lines. The acting of Julianne Moore as Evelyn Ryan, Woody Harrelson as the husband, and Ellary Porterfield as one of the daughters is absolutely top-notch.

The reason that I’m reviewing the film at this web page (which is after all dedicated to matters of religion) is that that religious themes run through the story. Ryan and her husband are Catholic. The husband has some major problems; in particular, he spends a large chunk of his weekly paycheck on booze, and he is prone to rage when he drinks. For example, at one point he beats on a just-won freezer with a frying pan; later, he throws food from the freezer out into the yard. Early in the movie, Ryan talks with a priest, who advises her to try harder to create a good home for her husband. Ryan doesn’t seem happy with this advice, but she follows it, even though her husband deserves nothing but divorce papers.

Moreover, the film encourages viewers to pity and forgive the husband based on three facts. First, he lost the quality of his voice and thus his singing career in a car crash. Second, he feels bad that he’s not the sole bread-winner of the household. Third, in his old age he takes real steps to make up for his earlier behavior. The husband is not irredeemably evil; he is merely a lout. And divorce is not easy for a woman with ten children to care for. Nevertheless, Ryan seems to stick with her husband because of Christian charity, not because he deserves the marriage.

Ryan (along with the film) confuses the issue of forgiveness (which properly must be earned) with the issue of holding true to one’s values and not falling into bitterness (which may or may not involve forgiveness). Also, Ryan enjoys more good luck (in winning various prizes) than most women in her position would find (even though Ryan’s success is based also on her skill with words).

The reason that I basically enjoyed the movie is that Ryan shows a powerful and positive spirit. Despite her setbacks and her husband’s behavior, she consistently seeks the joy of life. She maintains a strong, loving, and supportive relationship with her children, which comes out especially in the scenes with her daughter “Tuffy,” who later wrote the book on which the film is based.

The Wendell Baker Story

I’ve been thinking about The Wendell Baker Story, off and on, since I saw it yesterday. That confirms my thoughts that the movie, which few people have heard of, might be worth a second glance. On the whole, it’s not a spectacular film (it earned a 45 percent fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes), but it shows flashes of poignancy and heart. After a slow beginning, the film introduces older characters played by Kris Kristofferson, Harry Dean Stanton, and Seymour Cassel. The relationships among these characters, and between them and the lead character of Luke Wilson, give the comedy a soul of benevolent dignity. I especially enjoyed the performance of Kristofferson. Wilson wrote the screenplay, and his brothers Owen and Andrew join the project.

Take a moment to get your mind off of that movie, because, while I’m discussing movies, I thought I’d warn readers about a repulsive, disgusting film, Year of the Dog. I regard it, along with I Heart Huckabees and The Butterfly Effect, as the three worst, most nihilistic films I’ve ever seen.

Broken Trail

Over the Christmas holiday, I watched the film Broken Trail with family members. It’s a two-disk, three-hour movie that was made for television. I get the idea that it was filmed mostly or entirely in Canada, and the scenery is spectacular. The movie, starring Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church, is surprisingly good. (I was surprised because I’d never heard of it before.)

It’s a classic Western. The two cowboys — Duvall plays the uncle of Church’s character — leverage the family ranch in order to buy a herd of horses. Their purpose is to move the herd from Oregon to Wyoming, where the horses are in demand for military use. (A major buyer works out of Wyoming.) Along the way, the cowboys must overcome obstacles natural and man-made. Early in their travels, they come across a man who is transporting five young Chinese girls, whose families sold them into slavery. They are on their way to a brothel in a mean town. Needless to say, our heroes do not get on well with the slave runner. But what are a couple of cowboys supposed to do with five girls in a vast wilderness while running horses? Unfortunately, the owner of the brothel wants the seize the girls, and she knows some unsavory characters.

Such a movie easily could have been routine. But interesting dialogue and heartfelt, edgy acting from Duvall and Church make it memorable. It is a movie of strong heroes and dastardly villains, and I like that. But the heroes, with all of their financial resources tied up in the horses, have to struggle with their fears, tempers, and difficult pasts to stick together and find the strength to be towering men. Nicely done.

The movie is available at Netflix and Amazon, I noticed. I plan to buy a copy.

Stranger than Fiction

Recently my wife and I put Babel in the DVD player. We were treated to a preview of another movie, I think called Perfume, in which the main character murders women and turns them into perfume. Lovely. So I was already psyched for Babel. In the early scenes of that movie, a young boy in a desolate land masturbates on a cliff, then shoots a bus with his family’s new rifle. That was enough for me. We popped out the video. I had already seen the preview, so I got the idea that the next two hours of the film are devoted to the husband of the shooting victim trying to find help for his wife. No thank you, and again I thank you.

Thankfully, we had also rented Stranger than Fiction, which I thoroughly enjoyed even more than I had on a previous viewing. Will Farrell is a genius actor of physical comedy. In this film, Farrell plays an IRS agent who initially leads an entirely routine life devoid of meaningful values. Then, one day, he begins to hear a narrator describing his life. As he anxiously tries to figure out what’s going on, he begins to reevaluate his life and do the meaningful things that he truly wants to do. I like the movie because it is bright and positive and caring and funny — all of the things banned from so many other Hollywood movies these days.

We also watched an old film called Executive Suite. I forget who recommended it. It is another film we truly appreciated. Yes, it’s a bit dated; all the executives are white males (and all served by female secretaries) and the title sequence is quite jarring. Yet it is spectacularly acted and well written. It’s the story of the struggle to replace the head executive of a furniture company after he dies. Contrary to Oliver Stone’s commentary — and I have no idea why his commentary appears on the video, as he had nothing to do with the film — the film is not a critique of business profits. (I listened only to a few minutes of his commentary.) Instead, the film is about producing something of quality, something you can believe in and sell with pride, and something that will serve the company’s long-term success, not just its short-sighted balance sheet of the month. There are a some problems with the ideas conveyed by the writing. For example, three of the seven executives are quite horrible, which is more than any business could plausibly sustain, and the other four are overly tolerant of their behavior. Nevertheless, the climactic speech is among the most rousing and morally inspiring conclusions to any movie I’ve seen. Furniture boring? Not in this film.

Notes on the Harry Potter Movies

I just watched the third Harry Potter film again. While the fifth book (The Order of the Phoenix) remains my favorite, the third movie (The Prisoner of Azkaban) is the finest of the series so far. The first two films are enjoyable companions to the books. But the third movie is a stand-alone artwork. The timing in the first two films is awkward and distracting. The third movie is impeccably timed. Moreover, the the use of lighting, camera movement, and transitions, as well as the creative visual interpretations of the book, place the third movie a step above. I was thrilled to find that the fifth movie is also quite good; it takes a close second, in my book.

I see that the sixth film is “in production.” The director is David Yates, who also directed Phoenix. So that’s encouraging.

I hope that the producers of the films consider splitting the seventh book — The Deathly Hallows — into two movies. There is simply too much material in the book to allow for a single movie of reasonable length. Besides, there’s a perfect place the split the movie: Chapter 24. Specifically, page 481. I think readers of the book will understand what I mean. Ending the movie there would be a fitting tribute to the character who fills that page. Then the eighth movie could be called, Harry Potter and the Battle of Hogwarts. Obviously, they should film both movies during the same period to save costs and maintain better continuity. Splitting the final book into two movies would make the studio a lot more money as well as please fans.

Claire Danes Shines

At first I resisted seeing the film Stardust because it looked like a fantasy movie geared to kids. Well, it is a fantasy movie, and it is the most delightful film I’ve seen this year. I’m grateful for my friends’ recommendation. I notice that it’s still playing on a few movie screens. I expect to see it a third time before it disappears, then wait expectantly for the DVD.

A young man, trying to win the heart of the local beauty, sees a falling star and pledges to fetch it in exchange for the girl’s hand. But to retrieve the star, our hero must cross the wall that separates England from the magical world beyond. In that world, a fallen star is not a hunk of metal and ash — it is a lovely young lady, in this case portrayed by Claire Danes. Our hero must learn to become a man, save the star, and figure out whom he loves.

The entire cast of the film is spectacular, but the real, er, star of the film is Danes. Hers is a joyous performance.

By the way, my wife and I also saw Danes in Evening. I do not love the story, and Danes’s character is not consistently drawn (perhaps because a screenwriter worked over the original novel). But the film has its rewarding moments, usually when Danes is on screen.

More Serenity 2 Schemes

Late last night (actually early this morning), I posted an entry about the possibility of a sequel to Joss Whedon’s magnificent film Serenity. I offered a few ideas for promoting the sequel.

Today I received the following comment:

Anonymous Universal Executive said…
Duly noted. Thanks for the tips.

October 5, 2007 8:42 AM

Now, I don’t know if the author is actually a “Universal Executive” — hopefully so — but at least somebody managed to find the blog entry. And the comment renewed my excitement. If a sequel is a dream, at least it is a pleasant one. And it has to be a dream before it can become a movie.

I’d like to lay down a possible line of attack for getting the fan base more involved in marketing the second movie. Let us assume that Universal has approved back-to-back filming of Serenity parts two and three. Let us further assume that Universal has selected cool titles, hired outstanding print-ad designers, and planned the promotion of a slick preview. I think the way to go is to release the original movie to television a couple weeks or so before the second movie pops.

So here’s where the fans come in. Universal should schedule major-city screenings of the original film (or maybe even the new film) about two months before the release of the second film. Send out the stars again, just like before. To the extent practical, hand out free tickets to known supporters of Serenity, and sell the rest of the tickets. But here’s the big difference: print out something like a million slick, full-color postcards that feature the new film and its release date. Hand these cards out in stacks and encourage fans to mail or give them away to friends. Heck, I’d gladly spend $50 on stamps to mail out the postcard to my friends. It would be a good way to touch base with people as well as to promote the film. Also have available for sale T-shirts that feature the film and its release date. And make it easy for fans to buy (or download) these items.

So, Universal, as good as you’ve been about Serenity, “I’m asking more of you than I have before.”

Serenity 2?

Paul Hsieh of Geek Press e-mailed me a story from Cinema Blend that discusses the possibility of a Serenity sequel.

For those of you who have never heard of Serenity, it’s the spectacular sci-fi film by Joss Whedon (now on video) that follows the television show Firefly.

Unfortunately, even though the critics and the fans loved the movie, it performed poorly at the box office (despite my early predictions that it would do well).

Cinema Blend reports, “Serenity was a massive flop in theaters, but could big DVD sales for the box office bombed film be enough to resurrect the franchise? Alan Tudyk thinks so and he’s excited about it, even if his character is dead. … With the film’s box office numbers as bad as they were, it might make sense for the studio to push a sequel out the door as a direct-to-DVD sequel.”

I think the studio should consider the possibility that a sequel could do far better at the box office. The sequel will build on the success of the first movie. More people will have heard about it. And, if the studio is smart, it will market the sequel far better than it marketed the first movie. (I discussed some of the marketing problems previously.) Here are my recommendations for the studio:

1. Take advantage of the enthusiastic fan base! Sell Serenity shirts, hats, etc. at or near cost so that fans will advertise the movie’s release for you. I never was able to find a licensed shirt to purchase. I loved the pre-screenings. But there have got to be more ways to make it easy for fans to advertise for you.

2. Run competent newspaper ads this time. The print ads for the first movie failed to take advantage of the critical success and other selling points of the movie.

3. Pick a more exciting title. When you go to see, say, Star Wars, you pretty much know what you’re in for. I think the title Serenity, as cool as it was for existing fans, turned off others because it sounds like a movie in which a bunch of old people take a boat out on the lake.

4. Bring back Wash, because we love him, and because, as the article points out, Tudyk is an increasingly successful actor. I know, Wash is dead. But how about a video that Wash left for Zoe? (Now if I can just figure something out for Ron Glass…)

5. Joss planned a trilogy. So film both sequels back-to-back. The up-front cost will be higher, but the cost per movie will be lower, meaning more yummy profits in the end.

6. Re-release the original a week or two before the sequel? Or on TV?

(And now I I see the problem with blogs; it’s 3:00 a.m. But Serenity is worth it!)