ART ISN’T EASY: Reviews of Crazy Heart and The Last Station

The last two reviews of the 2009 year. I will start 2010 with a review of 3 Idiots.

The first part of Crazy Heart, a movie about a broken down, down on his luck, alcoholic country western singer is exhilarating. Jeff Bridges is impressive in the part of Bad Blake and the scenes of people singing their hearts out to country western tunes shows just why this type of music connects deeply with its fans. The first part of the film reaches quite an impressive climax with the appearance of Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet, a former backup singer to Bad Blake, but now an even bigger star on his own. Tommy is still so in awe of Blake and realizes just how much he owes this man, he can’t even look him in the face when they spend time together. They have an exhilarating duet when Tommy joins Blake on stage during one of his numbers, perhaps in an attempt to show Blake that he can help his former mentor if Blake would just let him. But Blake is stubborn and refuses to write any new songs; that is, until Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her appearance as Jean, a newspaper reporter who interviews Blake. At this point, formula completely takes over and there’s not an unpredictable moment left in the story, written by the director, Scott Cooper. Even Jean never really comes alive as a real person. She’s just the typical female character one usually sees in this sort of film, not there because she would be, but there because the author needs her to be. She has one unintentionally funny scene where Blake loses Jean’s four year old son in a mall and she shows up furious at him; all I could think of was Claude Rains in Casablanca (“I’m shocked, shocked that an alcoholic, broken down, dysfunctional singer would lose my son”). The movie is buoyed by some fun scenes between Blake and his agent where the agent takes all the anger and nastiness Blake gives him, but is willing to allow it (up to a point) because Blake is, well, Blake. But all in all, this is a movie that has its moments with some fantastic music, but is told in a way that is too overly familiar to really grab me like I would want it to.

The Last Station is about the last days of the great writer Leo Tolstoy (played in appropriately grand style by Christopher Plummer) and the fight over his memory and inheritance between his wife, Sofya, played like a character from a Euripedean tragedy by Helen Mirren (as Tolstoy says, “she needs a Greek chorus”), and Chertkov, the head of the Tolstoy movement, played by Paul Giamatti, who from an acting standpoint, seems to be more than up to the fight. Caught between the two factions is Vladimir Bulgakov, an aspiring writer and devoted Tolstoyian (he’s even a virgin) who is sent to spy on the Tolstoy’s by Chertkov, but becomes sympathetic to Sofya’s point of view. Bulgakov, though well played by James McAvoy (and the part is better suited to him since he’s a much better character actor than romantic lead), is never quite convincing. He is more of a device of the writer Michael Hoffman (who also directed) and the efforts Hoffman goes to in order to keep him front and center to the conflict at times seem a little forced. The conflict between Sofya and Chertkov is mainly defined in the movie in sexual terms—whether one should have it or not. The more political aspects of Tolstoy’s religion and philosophy (ideas that influenced Martin Luther King and Ghandi) are given little more than lip service. Because of this, the fight seems too one sided; today, it’s hard to sympathize with anyone who wants people to be celibate. As a result, the battle, though glorious at times, is not as strong as one might wish it to be. What gives the conflict the strength it does is the acting. Everyone more than rises to the occasion and delivers. Mirren is wonderfully sexy and passionate. Sofya is willing to humiliate herself to win and Mirren is able to make us not dislike Sofya for doing so. Plummer disappears behind Tolstoy’s beard and finds the down to earth humanity of the iconic writer. The smaller cast gives able support. It all looks great and at times it’s a lot of fun.

STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE: Reviews of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and The Lovely Bones

Two films by incredible visual stylists have opened or are about to open. But though lately the prevailing wisdom is that in film visual is more important than anything else, both movies prove in many ways that being a visual stylist alone is not enough to create a satisfying work of art.

It would be almost impossible not to say that Terry Gilliam has a remarkable eye. His movies look incredible. He is an amazing visual stylist, but I have to be honest and shame the devil (played by Tom Waits in Gilliam’s latest project The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, with the name of Mr. Nick, no lack of imagination there, is there) and say I’m not quite convinced he can tell a story as well as he needs to. In fact, again to be honest, I’m not even sure what the story was in this film; I was thoroughly confused from beginning to end and found myself spending most of my time just trying to figure out the plot created by screenwriters Charles McKeown and Mr. Gilliam himself. Christopher Plummer (next to the production design the main reason to see this film) plays some sort of wizard type person (Dr. Parnassus) who made some sort of deal with the devil (the aforesaid Waits) that gave him, Parnassus eternal life. Parnassus now travels in a wagon that doubles as a theater with a couple of assistants and his daughter, who though she doesn’t know it, may have to marry Mr. Nick if Paranassus doesn’t win some sort of bet that’s never clearly defined. Enter Heath Ledger for some reason, who somehow complicates that situation and who somehow resolves it. The theater piece that Parnassus produces (which for some unbelievable reason is ignored by people passing by) has a mirror as part of the set and if someone enters it, they enter the imaginarium which shows the person something about their life, though what that is isn’t always too clear. Ledger’s character comes along and revamps the piece and suddenly it’s a hit (though it’s unclear why since the show isn’t that significantly different). The best scenes are those that take place on the other side of the mirror. Though the psychology may be shallow (a drunk falls into a pit of empty bottles and enters a bar that blows up; shopping women enter a world of oversize shoes and hats), the art direction takes your breath away. Ledger died during the making of the film and three actors (Jude Law, Colin Farrell and Johnny Depp) take his place whenever his character enters the mirror. This could have made sense, but it never does. Just like the movie as a whole.

The Lovely Bones is also big on visuals, while being bigger on story telling which makes it the more satisfactory movie of the two. It’s narrated, like Sunset Boulevard, by someone who is dead, here a 13 year old girl, Susie, played marvelously by Saoirse Ronan. The story is then told in two plot lines, one concerning Susie and her adventures in a land of limbo, a breathtakingly exciting place of dazzling invention where everything changes second from second. It’s an Alice in Wonderland location filled with beautiful non sequitors and with more depth of psychology than the mirror world of Parnassus’s. The second plot revolves around Susie’s family and how they respond to the daughter’s death. This is also interesting, though not as interesting as the land of limbo. But as intriguing as the whole movie is, it doesn’t quite work since the two story lines never really come together. Occasionally Susie somehow connects with the real world, but not in any significant way. The screenplay, by Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens and Peter Jackson, who also directed, suggests that Susie has a character arc, that something happens that enables her to leave limbo and go on to what’s next, but it’s unclear what that something that happens could be. Susan Sarandon is a lot of fun as that staple of sit coms and 1970’s movies, the boozy, pill popping upper middle class pre-post-feminist woman who never learned how to wash clothes. Stanley Tucci is the rapist/murderer and he has his moments, but he does something with his voice that got on my nerves. In the end, it’s Ronan who holds the picture together.

APOCOLYPSE NOW REDUX REDUX: Review of 9 (followed in another post by Evangelion 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone and Zombieland)

9 is what I usually call a curiosity; something that is certainly interesting, but exactly what I’m suppose to make of it is a bit of a mystery. In movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner and Screamers, the question is asked, if one can’t determine the difference between a robot, android, clone etc. and a human being, is there one? In 9, the answer is assumed and it is no, there is none, they are the same. It’s questionable whether this works out in a satisfactorily dramatic manner because in many ways 9 answers the question the way the authors Pamela Pettler and Shane Acker (who also directed) may not have intended—they want to suggest there is no difference, but everything in the movie screams the opposite. These dolls may have self awareness and emotions, but they just don’t make it as replacements for human beings. For example, they can’t reproduce (so even if they do survive, it doesn’t mean anything to the continuation of the human race). Though some are older than others, they can’t age (though presumably they can decay). And fortunately for the producers and directors and the MPAA ratings board, they can’t go through puberty, much less have sex (the authors even go to the trouble of creating one female doll—only one, mind you, I suppose that’s all females are worth in this futuristic world—but to what end is hard to say, except to get little girls into the audience). And so in the end, it’s a little difficult to become fully invested emotionally in some dolls desperately trying to survive a post apocalyptic world where not only are there no more human beings, there doesn’t seem to be life forms left of any sort.

In spite of the questionable philosophy behind the story line itself, there is much to admire here. The animation is remarkable and the action sequences exciting. But the real star of the whole shebang may be the sound designers and engineers. The film is filled with strange clicks and berplunks, eerie whinings and buzzings, doing as much to create the reality of this world as the animators themselves. At the same time, the voiceovers may be a matter of taste. For me, only Christopher Plummer’s menacing evil bass really carries the day. The others, like those of Elijah Wood and John C. Reilly, seem a bit awkward, more like voices used to dub anime rather than actors used to create original characters

Though the time is the future, it really has more in common with post World War II Europe. The animation style resembles that of cartoons coming out of post-Communist Eastern Europe. The machinery has an old timey feel as well buoyed by a guest appearance of a crank up Victrola (somehow this world bypassed CD players and iPods). Though the theme is universal, the politics steer clear of anything U.S. of A. with the use of key words by the bad guys like “comrade” and “the state”. One character, dressed like a concentration camp survivor, spends his time creating drawings in a style called concentration camp gothic. And the scenes of a city bombed out use backgrounds that look like the devastated cities of Dresden and Berlin in the 1940’s. In other words, though the destruction of the world is all our faults, some political views and philosophies are more to blame than others. Nothing like hedging one’s bets.

The ending resembles something more anime than something made locally. It sorta, kinda makes sense, but not really and not if one tries to figure it out. The way the evil machine is destroyed feels arbitrary and the characters returning as ghouls perhaps means something to the filmmakers, but it went over my head. The final scene, which I suppose is suppose to be hopeful (it starts raining and the drops contain what seem to be the beginning of life), struck me as incredibly depressing. It’s hard to say what you’re suppose to make of a happy ending which says that everything is going to be all right, or at least it will in 25 million years when evolution again recreates human life as we know it.