Movie opinions: Me against the world

About a month ago I offered up a couple of my unconventional
movie opinions
and as a consequence received a few e-mails and comments
questioning my sanity. I’m veering off of my usual topic of marriage today
to clear up
my reasons
for saying such weird things.

Batman

First, I offered the opinion that Batman
Returns
was a better movie
than Batman. I
said this mainly because the villains in the sequel—Christopher Walken
as Max Shreck, Danny Devito as Penguin, and Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman—were
far more compelling than Jack Nicholson’s Joker. Walken is creepier and scarier
than Nicholson has ever
been,
and Nicholson did not understand his character at all. The Joker should be
one of the most terrifying characters in the history of cinema. The Joker of
the Batman comics is psychotic beyond anyone’s understanding. Normal psychos
are detached from reality. That makes them frightening and difficult to deal
with because no one can discern their motivations or predict their actions
(Hannibal Lecter is a good example). The
Joker is so detached from reality that he observes it from an elevated place,
in the same way that the sphere in Flatland could
view the two-dimensional world in a way that the poor flat circles and squares
could not comprehend. He is bizarrely inventive even in his own plane of existence,
which makes him completely incomprehensible in ours. His every move is precisely
calculated, but calculated using a system of logic known only to him.
He is terrifying because you don’t know his goal until it is accomplished,
and you don’t understand his motives until they are irrelevant. This is the
Joker.

Nicholson didn’t get that. His Jack Napier became the Joker out of anger,
bitterness, and lust for vengeance. What should have been a character larger
and more expansive than life became a petty thug who killed his boss for setting
him up to die in a police shootout and who wreaked havoc on a city so that
everyone would suffer the way he did. As a movie villain, this is run-of-the-mill
stuff and unworthy of the character. Not even as scary as Col. Jessup
in A Few Good Men.
But Nicholson wanted to play Nicholson and did not raise the
Joker even to the level of Harry Connick Jr. as Daryll Lee Cullum in Copycat.
I can think of only one character in movies that exhibited the kinds of qualities
the Joker
should
have—a character
that played by rules no one else could understand,
that was a little scary even when he
was being nice, that displayed a sort of genius that left all observers gaping
in astonishment—and that is
Willy Wonka played by Gene Wilder in Willy
Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
.
Replace Mr. Wonka’s benevolence with wild, freewheeling evil, and you have
the perfect Joker. The difference
between
a Nicholson
Joker
and
a Wilder Joker is that people would look at the first and say, "There
is a man who will do anything to anyone in order to appease his twisted desires,"
while they would look at the other and say, "There is a creature who will
do absolutely anything."

I saw a Jack Nicholson biography program on TV the other day, and one of the
interviewees commended Jack Nicholson and his amazing accomplishment of infusing
the Joker with humanity. I would say exactly the same thing, but in accusation
rather than praise.

The Usual Suspects

WARNING: The ending is key to this movie, and it is with the ending that I
have a problem, so that is what I will discuss. If you haven’t seen the movie,
DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER. Rent the movie. However flawed I think it is, it’s
still entertaining and worth watching.

When you watch a movie, you have to have suspend a certain amount of disbelief.
Each movie has its own rules and conventions that you must accept if you are
to enjoy it on its own terms. Some movies play with that and challenge your
imagination and intellect—The Sting, The Game, and The
Sixth Sense
, for example—but
they stick to the rules they lay down at the beginning. Their endings make
perfect sense within their own stories’ conexts. The
Usual Suspects
, on the other hand, pulls the rug out from under you and
gives you an ending that’s not foreseeable even in hindsight.

Some stories have unreliable narrators, which can be an effective storytelling
device. Memento was awesome,
and it had perhaps
the
most
unreliable
narrator
in history.
My
objection
is
that TUS was supposed to be telling a story, and instead it relinquished
all its responsibility to the character of Verbal. It doesn’t leave me wondering
what was real and what was made up. It leaves me wondering why I wasted
two hours caring about characters
that may not have even existed in the movie’s universe.

It’s fine that Spacey lies to the police for the entire movie. It’s inexcusable
that he lies to the audience for the entire movie since his story is the movie.
The ending is not a twist, not a turn, not a surprise that can happen within
the rules laid down at the beginning. It’s a copout ending, and it ruins the
story.

Everyone I know (including my own wife) disagrees with me on this.
They say that repeated viewings yield clues about the real truth. That
may be
true.
The
story
is compelling and skillful enough that I could probably watch it again and
enjoy it.
Maybe
seeing
it with
a director’s
commentary
would
help.
The
first
time I saw it, I was a little enamored with the ending, but that feeling
quickly gave way to disillusionment. To be fair,
I saw it
on video shortly after seeing The Sixth Sense in the theater, so
maybe my standards for surprise endings were a little too high at the time.
Still,
I believe it’s
okay
for characters
to contradict themselves and each other, but not for the movie itself to
do that—especially when it presents itself as cohesive.

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