Archive for January, 2010

Film: Scott Cooper: Crazy Heart (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , , on January 28, 2010 by baker

Jeff Bridges, the screen presence, has always seemed on the cusp of either busting into a healthy gut laugh or dissolving in a fit of wrenched-soul despair.  The thin line he rides can make him at times immeasurably fun to behold – a poised, vaguely effete shaggy dog of a comedian – or incredibly hard to watch, his frail emotions roiling just behind his tiny eyes.  He’s got his tricks down, as any actor with a 30-year career behind him will, but in the best of roles he manages to troll beyond them for something fresh and clear, something uncannily human beyond the written lines and the essentially silly demands of narrative screen craft.  He’s as helplessly subject as anyone to the quirks of his director and editor, but at a certain level – like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tommy Lee Jones, Pacino in his youth – he seems fundamentally unable to lie with his behavior and delivery, even if the material he’s working with doesn’t always offer truth on its own.

He’s one of very few actors – perhaps the only one – for whom I would see a film purely for a performance.  And most of his films are, as films, quite messy.  Peter Weir has his moments in Fearless (1993), particularly with the odd catharsis he delivers with the horrifying plane crash, but Bridges’ liquid presence, mired in willful oblivion and childlike sensual engagement, preserves the core of sublime human frailty that Raphael Iglesias’ script just about overlooks.  Terry Gilliam never quite knows where to put his camera, but Bridges roots his performance in The Fisher King (1991) in something ineffably real (and which, as played opposite Robin Williams, might not even be the right note for the film).  Even Joel and Ethan, floundering for a purpose in The Big Lebowski (1998) (sorry, everybody), can’t make Bridges anything less than utterly, absorbingly pleasurable to watch, a hippie lizard sunning himself in the funky eclipse of the Coens’ whimsy.

It should come as no surprise of any kind that Bridges’ Crazy Heart director, Scott Cooper, is an actor.  He pays an actor’s attention to molding his characters in mood-conscious time and space, and he’s done well to fill his crew with craftsmen weaned on actor-directed films: Billy Bob Thornton’s cinematographer, Barry Markowitz, and casting director Mary Vernieu; Ed Harris’ Appaloosa production designer Waldemar Kalinowski and construction coordinator Ben Zeller.  But Cooper also brings a lovely spatial awareness to Crazy Heart and a soft editing touch that spares his performers from having to carry too much weight for him; he frequently lets his camera drift into his scenes from the periphery, and cuts gently through them without visual impatience.  Bridges is free to play alcoholic, late-career country singer-songwriter Bad Blake as a man rather than as a narrative construct; Cooper does his job as director to build the film out of subtle, uncompromised blocks of articulate behavior.

The result is what Tender Mercies probably tried to be in 1983: a subdued character piece of remarkable progressive dimension, buoyed by a powerhouse of a central performance and superb supporting parts (Maggie Gyllenhaal and Colin Farrell do not disappoint).  But Robert Duvall (who’s executive producer of Crazy Heart, and plays a small part), an actor of great tact under the guidance of a Coppola or a Lumet, does not radiate the same unerring gravitas from one role to the next, and Mercies director Bruce Beresford is not a born filmmaker (nor is Cooper) or a gifted director of actors (Cooper is); there are layers to Duvall’s Mac Sledge that slip away from the film, unrealized, from lack of graceful craftsmanship.  It’s a tall order, to let performances carry a film.  The danger is that it’ll lose a sense of its own trajectory, lost in the muffling nooks and folds of character; a whole film may not emerge.  In the best case scenarios – The Godfathers, Last Tango, There Will Be Blood – enormously confident filmmakers allowed their films the possibility of being upended by overwhelming performances, all the while reigning them in under one cohesive cinematic net.  No scale of performance need ever expand beyond the boundaries of a film; no core performance need ever be scaled down to fit in a film, either.

Bridges has been around the block a few times, and I imagine he’s got a fine-tuned sense of his own presence.  His mannerisms sometimes show a bit more than they should in Crazy Heart – he has a way of extracting a cigarette from his mouth that seems plucked from some other, groovier, part – and it’s possible that Cooper wanted a little more Jeff Bridges in Bad Blake than the character necessarily required, but this is the kind of criticism one raises when one (me) doesn’t have anything more to criticize.  The music performances in Crazy Heart are frequent and lengthy, and illustrate the quality of old-time country music that, like classic rock, cracks open the showy foolishness of its modern pop descendants.  The songs Bridges performs – himself, rather well – are straightforward but reserved, sung inwardly with generous warmth that wends its way into the audience as on a light breeze – the audience in the film, and to us as well.  They are wonderfully understated songs, about being a man, about being an aging man; there’s a tricky little scene in which Gyllenhaal chastises Blake not for effortlessly picking out a gorgeous ditty on his guitar, on the fly, but for doing it on her bed, providing her with an association Blake the traveling performer will probably forget.  The song itself isn’t half the point.  Its position in time and place to the player and listener means a lot more, as song and memory leapfrog past each other.

There’s the sudden feeling, watching scenes like this, that Bridges the actor has earned his way to a role like this, with a lifetime of accumulated facets that add up to memories for us.  It isn’t the same as Mickey Rourke playing Randy Robinson in The Wrestler (2008), where Rourke’s own failures seemed as much a part of the performance as his acting.  Bridges was never self-destructive; he’s routinely the best part of his films.  And presumably, Bad Blake was once the best part of his own act: a brilliant songwriter, a magnificent performer, and a mentor to the younger country singer-songwriters who would skyrocket to fame far surpassing his own.  Bridges is not a marquee superstar, but he commands the kind of attention and respect reserved for the quiet lifers: the Tom Waitses, the Paul Schraders, the ones you can be sure have a vast reservoir of experience to draw from, and a lot more to say than they may care to spell out.

The film’s closing scenes remind us just how bound an actor is to forces outside himself.  The film as a dramatic vehicle ends a good twenty minutes before the credits roll, and we’re compelled to watch Blake rehabilitate.  Bridges does all he can with these scenes, and Cooper means them earnestly, and all things considered, Crazy Heart might very well be Bridges’ best film, but there’s a scene in a shopping mall security that takes Blake to the very end of the line.  A cut to a later, intimate concert – Blake calmer, quieter, an even older man – might have bypassed the de facto syrup ladled on instead.  The end isn’t a lie, really, but it’s not fair to provide such rousing redemption for a character so responsible for his own failings, and as conscious of his own need to change.  Bridges is above it.

Film: 3D in 4D

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on January 27, 2010 by baker

As fascinating as Avatar is – as a purely, purely audiovisual experience – my fear is that its success underscores the limitations of the 3D format.  The process, when it works, is unbelievably absorbing, destroying the two-dimensional barrier between real and screen life and blasting open a sense of how we operate in physical space.  Some of James Cameron’s best shots are in the live action sequences.  No more is a commander addressing his soldiers a simple question of imagery; in Cameron’s world, it’s an impasto of spatial orientation – the commander’s back, turned to us, a textured and implacable wall before his troops.  The effect is not lost in two-dimensional representation, but in 3D it functions less on our capacity to comprehend pictography – cartoons, essentially – and far more on our innate responses to depth and motion.  It makes a sequence involving a giant jungle critter attack stunningly visceral; our brains tell us this thing is about to bite us, and order us to recoil.  Suddenly we’re not watching a movie in order to react to its story elements, but to be held absolute captive by its sensual stimuli.

As an extraordinarily powerful Hollywood filmmaker, as well as an aficionado of science and kineticism, Cameron is uniquely able to allow this stuff to play out.  Other recent 3D films – Coraline and Up, say – have also used the process to amusing effect, but inevitably feel more allegiance to their stories than to 3D’s inherent dynamism; it winds up being a gimmick instead of a part of these films’ operating systems.  Anyway, to the extent that we are used to digesting motion pictures as animated stories, it’s entirely irrelevant (it’s almost easy to forget that it’s been around in movies since the ’50s, and that its popularity has surged and receded in more or less equal measure).  Cameron’s productive patience with HD technology has allowed 3D to flourish to a degree that it has never seen; Avatar contains more convincing, more immersive, 3D in its CGI sequences than Up did last spring, and it does it almost entirely without hurling objects through the screen at your face (something the preview for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland couldn’t resist for all of three minutes).

And yet…and yet.  Dropping $237,000,000 doesn’t exactly inspire the sort of dramatic invention or piercing focus that allows a film like The Hurt Locker to work its way under your skin, or A Serious Man to embroil you in its tragicomic bravura.  And it’s not out of line to question whether the script or its preposterous scale came first in Cameron’s mind; he’s never shown much interest in crafting anything but efficient stereotypes for characters, human vehicles to enact his setpieces.  Somehow these have generally worked: Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2 (1991), True Lies (1994), and even Titanic (1997) are all masterfully paced action films of virtually no diluting complexity – nothing complicates his stunning virtuoso visual flow.  He’s the only filmmaker in history to consistently outspend and outreap.  He’s never had a flop, and not even Spielberg has been able to pull off such consistently expensive blockbusters – and at this point that has as much to do with the film’s own hype as with Cameron’s, the cinematic magician who can do no fiscal wrong.  But what he gains in visceral amusement he loses in everything else, and his films are airtight Pez dispensers of no greater ambition than the sugar contained therein.  Avatar is merely a Dances with Wolves ripoff with aliens and bigger guns.

Which leaves the advancement of 3D in question.  It’s still a vastly cumbersome process, full of technical pitfalls and optical shortcomings that limit certain frames and lighting effects (cinematographer Mauro Fiore discusses some of them at length in American Cinematographer, in case you were wondering why the live action scenes tended to look a little smoky).  To film with 3D takes time and money that most productions don’t have, and that most filmmakers won’t commit, and until the cost and ease of use both improve, it will be limited to the kinds of projects studios don’t want to take narrative chances with.  To make it more than a gimmick and less than an insult to a producer’s checkbook demands a specific breed of filmmaker, perhaps a new breed entirely: with Cameron’s patience and an artist’s sensitivity, and a businessman’s commercial acumen.

Step it up, Coens.  Bring Fincher.