Monday, January 25, 2010

R.I.P. Jean Simmons; "Crazy Heart" is fairly tame; Heath Ledger's swan song

The Siren has put up a truly lovely tribute to a truly lovely actress: Jean Simmons, who isn't quite as famous now as she was in her heyday, but not for lack of beauty or talent. I've really nothing to add to it except that my father had a lifelong crush on her, and while I've only seen her in a couple of movies, I sure don't blame him.



directed by Scott Cooper
starring Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall

“Crazy Heart” is a well-made, well-acted, and thoroughly well-intentioned film. It’s also a bit of a snooze.

That most likely won’t stop it from snagging Jeff Bridges his long-overdue Oscar, nor should it. The veteran actor gives a fine, deeply etched performance that, characteristically, manages to be affecting without being showy and provides not just the heart but the backbone of a film that might otherwise feel rather limp. As it is, even his talents can’t prevent a certain flatness from setting in, as the story hits a well-worn, if comfortable, groove.

Bridges, looking like Kris Kristofferson if Kristofferson had gone to seed, plays a fictional country singer, “Bad” Blake, who’s descended from near-legendary status to semi-obscurity. His solo gigs reduced to dive bars and bowling alleys, his album royalties slowed to a trickle, he hasn’t written a new song in years, has four failed marriages and a grown-up son he hasn’t seen or talked to in decades, and spends most of his days in a whiskey-induced haze. Then he meets and falls for a woman, Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and starts thinking, to paraphrase his own words, about how bad she makes his life look—and whether he can clean it up a little.

“Crazy Heart” has drawn a lot of comparisons with last year’s “The Wrestler,” and the parallels are obvious: a washed-up star with an alliterative stage name, his past littered with poor choices and estranged family members, still making a living out of the dregs of his former fame, looks for a chance at a comeback. There’s also an obvious difference between the two, which I won’t spoil either movie by spelling out. But a less obvious, though equally key, difference is that unlike Randy “the Ram” Robinson, Bad Blake isn’t really hung up on his glory days, or at least isn’t wondering where they went. One senses he knows perfectly well where they went, and knows that he has only himself—or perhaps, more accurately, his alcoholism—to blame. Maybe that’s why “Crazy Heart,” even at its lowest moments, lacks the wrenching pathos of “The Wrestler,” and why Bad’s slide towards irrelevance always seems reversible in a way that Randy’s never was. (That’s not, by the way, to underestimate the destructive power of alcoholism, though one could fairly argue the writers of “Crazy Heart” do underestimate it.)

I can see why people like “Crazy Heart.” It’s a spare, modest film that feels like a labor of love, as indeed it was for director-writer Scott Cooper - elevated not just by Bridges’ bona fide musical chops but his ability to dig deep into his character while revealing its essence sparingly, gradually, in glimmers and shards. Even though the broad outlines of the plot are predictable, the smaller strokes are less so. The pacing of Bad’s attempt at rehabilitation is more delayed and more jagged than it would be in a glossier Hollywood version of the same story, though it ultimately comes to a resolution that feels too neat and swift after what came before. The coda, however, is nicely understated, even if it can’t resist, at the last, an unnecessary dollop of sugary sentiment.

But the film’s main weakness, I think, is also one of its most central features: its focus on the romance between Bad and Jean. The problem isn’t so much that Jean is young enough to be Bad’s daughter as that the relationship itself isn’t particularly interesting. Jean’s a journalist and a single mother, which one might expect would make her a multidimensional person; but in fact, we see only two facets of her—the nurturing mother and the nurturing lover/muse—and the inevitable conflict that arises between those two roles. Despite Gyllenhaal’s best efforts, her character remains something of a cipher, and her whole relationship with Bad more of a necessary catalyst for his own development than an intrinsically engaging story. Which might be ok if so much of the movie wasn’t devoted to showing that story unfold.

Personally, I was much more interested in the relationship between Bad and his former protégé, country superstar Tommy Sweet (an uncredited, and surprisingly good, Colin Farrell), whose own career skyrocketed at the same time that Bad’s faded. Bad agrees, with ill grace, to open for Tommy, and some of the best scenes in the movie involve the complicated, prickly interactions between the fallen mentor and the student who eclipsed him. Bad may regard Tommy as the last man on earth he should be asking for a favor, while Tommy’s mainly looking out for his own interest, yet underneath the tension there’s a ghost of an old camaraderie and a vein of genuine, mutual respect for each other’s talents that comes out in both their conversations and their musical collaborations. I couldn’t help wishing, more than once, that Cooper had made a movie about the history of Bad and Tommy, rather than of Bad and Jean. But I guess that story wouldn’t feel as much like a classic country song.


Also saw:


directed by Terry Gilliam
starring Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Tom Waits, Verne Troyer, Lily Cole, Andrew Garfield, with appearances by Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell

Yep, this is the one—Heath Ledger’s last film, which he hadn’t finished shooting at the time of his death. Undeterred, director Terry Gilliam went ahead and finished it without him, hiring no fewer than three major stars—Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell—to play Ledger’s character in the scenes that were left.

Inspired or misconceived? Neither, actually. No doubt “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” would have been best served if Ledger had been able to play himself all the way through. Still, Gilliam’s idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds, given that the movie’s a fantasy and the scenes in question involve incursions into a kind of dreamworld, in which a Heath turning into a Johnny, Jude, or Colin is no stranger than some of the other goings-on.

But in any event we get Heath for most of the movie, playing Tony, a silver-tongued trickster who by chance falls in with a rickety traveling show that looks like it was displaced from a 19th century carnival: there’s a wry dwarf (Verne Troyer), a beautiful young girl (model Lily Cole), the Puck-ish youth in love with her (Andrew Garfield), and the presiding seer, Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), who’s also the girl’s father. It’s Parnassus’ special mental powers that create the show’s principal and only attraction, the Imaginarium—the aforementioned dreamworld, a projection of each entrant’s desires, fantasies, and fixations. In addition to this rare talent, Parnassus also boasts unusual longevity and a centuries-old relationship with the devil (Tom Waits) that’s become a kind of eternal game of oneupmanship. At stake in the latest round of their matchup is Parnassus’ daughter, who belongs to whichever of them is first to win five souls. Tony soon becomes entangled in the game, and complicates it with his own self-interested machinations.

“Doctor Parnassus” is a head trip—more “Baron Munchausen” than “12 Monkeys”—that makes less sense the more you think about it. My advice: don’t try too hard to make sense of it or read some complicated allegory into it. Rather, just enjoy the trip to Gilliam-land, with its visual delights, funhouse whimsy, and moments of loopy humor that call to mind the old Monty Python days—and, of course, Ledger’s final performance. He’s in charming rogue mode here, which, like his highly underrated turn in “Casanova,” is always a pleasure to watch. As for his understudies, they gamely attempt to pick up where he left off, though their effectiveness seems to diminish from one stand-in to the next. (Or maybe I’m just unfairly prejudiced against Colin Farrell, who to be fair, is usually a better actor than I like to admit.) Still, perhaps the most positive sign for “Parnassus” is that it doesn’t end up being overshadowed by the presence of Heath Ledger: if anything, it’s most focused on the Plummer-Waits dynamic, with Ledger playing an almost incidental, though very engaging, member of a cheerfully chaotic ensemble. Somehow I suspect that that would have been exactly how Ledger would have wanted this, his last role, to be remembered.


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Putting the "Golden" in the Golden Globes

In the immortal words of Deep Throat: Follow the money.

Ricky Gervais may have been joking about bribing the president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association...but it sure does look like the movies that won the big awards tonight were (for the most part) the ones that could have afforded to buy them!

You have the two best picture prizes, as well as best director, going to two of the biggest box office hits of the year - AVATAR for drama, THE HANGOVER for comedy. (Side note: Seriously, THE HANGOVER? Granted, I'm one of a minority who hasn't seen that movie and so have no standing to complain...still, I devoutly hope that win's not a harbinger for Oscar nominations. And was it really necessary to invite Mike Tyson on stage?)

You have best actress for drama going to Sandy Bullock, who's had her most commercially successful year evah and won for her role in a $200m+ hit (THE BLIND SIDE). And you have best actress for comedy going to Meryl Streep for JULIE/JULIA (though the latter was probably due more to the fact that everyone bows down to the awesomeness that is Meryl Streep.)

You have best actor for comedy going to - probably the biggest WTF of the night, for me anyway - Robert Downey, Jr. in SHERLOCK HOLMES. I mean, really, HFPA? He was good enough in an entertaining enough film, but hardly the best of the year. On the plus side, Downey's was one of the funnier acceptances of the night. (Though I agree with his wife: Matt Damon should've won for "The Informant!")

Ok, so Jeff Bridges did nab the other best actor award for a still relatively unseen indie movie about a washed-up country singer...but that one was pretty much in the bag ever since buzz started building for "Crazy Heart." After all, Bridges is a well liked and highly respected actor who's never quite gotten the recognition he's deserved, and people in the industry (I'm told) see this as his year.

Anyway, tonight's ceremony was otherwise relatively uneventful. Several people acknowledged the ridiculousness of the event when juxtaposed with the devastation in Haiti; even more took cheap potshots at NBC, notwithstanding that's who was televising the event. Other points of note:


Meryl's speech. Classy and heartfelt.

"The Weary Kind" winning Best Song. (No one seemed to get T Bone Burnett's Ryan Bingham/"Up in the Air" joke, but I did!)

"Glee" winning Best TV comedy! No, I don't necessarily, objectively think it deserved the award, but I do love that show...and I was already tired of "30 Rock" winning.

"Mad Men" winning Best TV drama again. I'm not tired of that.

Drew Barrymore. Is so adorable - just took the lead from Amy Adams for the annual Hollywood cuteness award.

Martin Scorsese making the Cecil B DeMille award presentation mercifully short, and using it to show just how much the man loves movies. It's positively heartwarming, even if his own movies usually aren't.

James Cameron mellowing out and actually sounding almost humble - no more "king of the world" from him! Even gave a nice nod to his ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow - though I, too, was hoping she'd sneak a win for Best Director for "The Hurt Locker." I can't really quarrel too much with Cameron getting it; while "Avatar" isn't perfect, Cameron's vision is undeniably extraordinary in a lot of ways. I just wish he could have split picture/director honors with Bigelow somehow. I guess I can hold out hope for the Oscars, but I'm not holding my breath.


The abovementioned correlation between Big Box Office and Big Awards. Come on, HFPA, try to set the Academy a good example. Not that big box office necessarily means a bad movie...but still. ("The Hangover"? Really?)

Harrison Ford mispronouncing Vera Farmiga's name.

What was with all the plunging necklines and eye-popping cleavage? Not a fan. Then again, I'm not the target audience for that kind of thing.


Sally Hawkins' dress. Sorry, darling, that eyesore stood out - not in a good way - in a fairly tame evening. Even Chloe Sevigny's mass of ruffles (ripped or not) wasn't that outlandish.


Paul McCartney giving the best animated film award - a point he himself noted before implying that all animation was the product of trippin'...Maybe the last animated films he saw were "Dumbo" and "Fantasia."


Christoph Waltz's acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor. That planetary metaphor got a little out of hand - it ended up making Quentin Tarantino sound like the center of the universe.


Ricky Gervais: his opening fell flat - he seemed extremely ill at ease, and I don't think it was just his usual schtick - but he improved as the night went on (maybe it was the beer he was swigging), and got away with a fair number of oh-no-he-didn't zingers. Loved how he snuck off the stage before Mel Gibson could take a whack at him.

And that's it from me...time to go revise my Oscars predictions!

Belated R.I.P: Eric Rohmer

Somehow it never feels quite right, in the wake of a disaster that kills tens of thousands people in some of the most horrible ways imaginable, to focus on the simultaneous but unrelated, natural death of one fortunate and privileged man, however great or accomplished. Yet it's in the name of something greater than that one man - namely, his art - that we should remember someone like Eric Rohmer. I'm hardly a connoisseur of his work, having only seen two of his films (Conte de printemps and Le rayon vert), but for me he embodies an aesthetic so dramatically (and refreshingly) different from the dominant M.O. of American movies that it is, in its own way, as quietly necessary as it is, sadly, now a little bit more likely to fade with his passing.

I'm talking about films that revolve around conversations - true, generally conversations between privileged, educated, self-analytical, otherwise relatively unremarkable people, but still nonetheless films that are most interested in the act of communication and the layers of character it reveals, rather than the more immediate visual and sensory stimuli we tend to look for in our movies. The closest analogue I can think of in American film is Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise"/"Before Sunset" diptych, though I suppose some trace of Rohmer's spirit lingers on in any film that is considered "talky" or character-centered rather than plot or action-driven. Here's hoping that spirit lives on and continues to find audiences, now and in the future.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Best of the Decade: My Top 25 Films of the "Aughts"

It would be more accurate to call this list “25 movies of the aughts that resonated most with me.” Strictly speaking, these aren't necessarily the 25 movies I believe were the greatest artistic accomplishments of the decade, or the 25 movies I most enjoyed watching, although many of the titles I picked fall into one or both of those categories. Rather, these are the films that had the strongest and most enduring impact on me—the ones that moved me most when I first saw them and that continue to linger in my brain.

Obviously, there were many, many more movies than this that I liked and seriously considered including. If ranking weren't so difficult and ultimately arbitrary, I would have made a top 50 list and easily been able to fill it.

But here are my 25, for what they're worth:

1. You Can Count on Me (2000)

How many movies focus on a brother-sister relationship and really get it right? Kenneth Lonergan’s funny, tender, sharply written debut feature is one of the few, and also one of the few movies that truly feels like a “slice of life”—real life, not Hollywood’s version of life. This is also the movie that made me fall in love with both Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo.

2. In the Mood for Love (2000)

No one matches director Wong Kar-Wai for cinematic poetry—or co-stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung for soulful longing as two neighbors in 1960’s Hong Kong who are at once tied to one another and doomed to remain apart.

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

I love this movie less for Michel Gondry’s stylistic playfulness, fun as it is, than for the simple truth of its central message: Love hurts, relationships fail, but enduring the pain, along with the joy, gives meaning to our existence.

4. Before Sunset (2004)

A mini-miracle: a movie about two people (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) who spend the entire time walking and talking on the streets of Paris—and who never once lost my attention or sympathy. And I hadn’t even seen the 1995 prequel, “Before Sunrise” (which I now like even better than "Sunset"), at the time. The consummate movie for anyone who’s ever wondered “what if” about past relationships and other life’s choices.

5. Lord of the Rings – The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), and The Return of the King (2003)

I’m cheating a little here – but Lord of the Rings, more than any other trilogy I can think of, really merits being treated as one grand, 7+ hr saga. The epic film cycle of the decade, and deservedly so.

6. Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Stirring, beautifully filmed adventure of an English naval ship during the Napoleonic wars—but the best thing about it (as in the books by Patrick O’Brian on which it’s loosely based) is the friendship between Russell Crowe’s impulsive, man-of-action captain Jack Aubrey and Paul Bettany’s Stephen Maturin, ship’s surgeon and man of intellect.

7. Mulholland Drive (2001)

Arguably David Lynch’s most accessible film, but still wildly trippy and weirdly mesmerizing. Possibly the most creative take ever on the dark side of the Hollywood dream.

8. A.I. (2001)

One day I will write an essay about why this is one of Spielberg’s most brilliant and most misunderstood films. Oh, and by the way, that ending everyone hates? To me, it’s the perfect ending for the movie, though possibly despite rather than because of Spielberg’s intentions.

9. Solaris (2002)

In my opinion, an overlooked gem—ostensibly a sci-fi film with philosophical underpinnings (it was derived from a classic sci-fi novel and a 1972 film by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky), in Steven Soderbergh’s hands it becomes a haunting meditation on love and whether or not we can ever truly know or remember the ones we love. George Clooney and Natasha McElhone are excellent as the lovers over whom “death shall have no dominion.”

10. City of God (2002)

Searing portrait of life in the slums of Rio that somehow also manages to be a rousing, kinetic coming-of-age tale about one boy whose eye for the horrors around him also provide him a chance of escape.

11. Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

Highly disturbing, totally unforgettable documentary about a family who may have been victims of a witch hunt, their own deeply rooted dysfunction, or both.

12. Ratatouille (2007)

The best film in the Pixar canon...and that’s saying a lot.

13. Elephant (2003)

Gus Van Sant’s impressionistic depiction of a “normal high school day” brutally interrupted by a Columbine-style massacre has a strange lyrical beauty that only heightens the jarring effect of the violence, when it happens. Controversial when it first came out, this film seems (unjustly) all but forgotten today.

14. Junebug (2005)

Best known as Amy Adams’ big break (and still my favorite performance of hers to date), but it’s the entire family dynamic so seamlessly captured by the entire cast—including Alessandro Nivola, Celia Weston, Ben McKenzie, and Embeth Davidtz as the foreign outsider—that makes this film feel so unforced and organic. A movie that grows on you.

15. Far From Heaven (2003)

Critics love to analyze it as Todd Haynes’ homage to Douglas Sirk—but even without having seen any of Sirk’s “weepies,” I can tell you this movie made me weep. Yet it isn’t one bit cheaply manipulative—just exquisitely, almost unbearably beautiful and ineffably sad.

16. Lust, Caution (2007)

It’s not about the sex, though the movie’s probably best known for its NC-17-rated sex scenes. It’s about the tragedy of pitting love against the currents of history (specifically, the Japanese occupation of Shanghai before and during WWII), portrayed with all of Ang Lee’s characteristic nuance and subtlety, and anchored by sensational performances by Tony Leung and Tang Wei.

17. There Will Be Blood (2007)

The hypnotic power of this film lies in its ability to draw you entirely into the warped worldview of its obsessed and maniacal main character. Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Daniel “I drink your milkshake” Plainview is one for the ages.

18. Bamboozled (2000)

Spike Lee’s rage boils over in this trenchant satire of the African American presence in pop culture, causing the movie to go a bit off the rails near the end—but that doesn’t prevent it from being brilliant, shocking, and fiercely funny up till then. Warning: it may take some time to pick your jaw back off the floor after seeing the historical imagery of racism Lee bombards at the screen.

19. The Prestige (2006)

It may not be high art, but there's no denying it's entertainment of the highest order - appropriate for a movie that explores the fine line between artistry and showmanship. Beyond the obvious surface pleasures of a plot involving a deadly rivalry between two master tricksters, it evokes the heady wonder and underlying fears of a time when magic, science, and the supernatural coexisted - and sometimes overlapped - in the public consciousness.

20. Caché (2005)

I’m still amazed at how deftly this enigmatic, unsettling film plays with the concept of the voyeur and turns it into a study of guilt and oppression. I love the way its use of perspective constantly keeps the viewer just off balance, and though it isn't exactly a horror film, it has one moment that gave me the biggest shock I've had as a moviegoer in the entire past decade.

21. Million Dollar Baby (2004)

I don’t love Clint Eastwood as much as the Academy does, but this, in my opinion, is his finest film. His spare style suits the gritty material, and makes the flood of tears it inevitably unleashes feel well earned.

22. Volver (2006)

Death and ghosts may propel the plot of this film (admittedly the only one by Almodóvar from this decade that I’ve seen), but it’s really an irresistible celebration of life, brimming with a vitality and richness so wonderfully embodied in Penelope Cruz’s voluptuous eyes. Maybe the real reason I love this movie is because she looks so frickin’ gorgeous in it.

23. Marie Antoinette (2006)

Yes, this, and not Lost in Translation, which I also liked very much, is the Sofia Coppola film that made my list. It shows the evolution of Coppola’s distinct style—airy, delicate, and feather-light, almost evanescent, without being insubstantial—in creating a dreamlike vision of the opulent, bewildering universe of the ill-fated teen queen.

24. 2046

The “sequel,” of sorts, to In the Mood for Love, and best seen alongside it. Not quite as heart-wrenching as its predecessor partly because it’s about a man (Tony Leung again) who’s closed himself off against feeling—but still a spellbinding mood piece.

25. About a Boy (2002)

Almost too lightweight for the list, this movie makes the cut because it’s one I go back to for its warmth, its gentle humor, and its thoroughly convincing portraits of two boys (Hugh Grant being the much older one) who teach each other to grow up.

Special honorable mentions:

GEORGE CLOONEY has had a terrific run this decade as an actor, director, and producer. Although Solaris was the only one of his efforts that cracked my top 25 (ironically, it was probably by far his least successful commercially), he also starred in such excellent films as Ocean’s Eleven, O Brother, Where Art Thou, Good Night, and Good Luck, Syriana, Michael Clayton, and last year’s Up in the Air. Not too shabby for the guy who made his big-screen debut fleeing from killer tomatoes.

RICHARD LINKLATER for exploring avenues that stretch pretty far afield from his slacker pictures of the ’90s: in addition to directing and co-writing Before Sunset (see above), he used rotoscoped animation to explore questions of existence and reality—with surprising effectiveness—in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, but also delivered such lighter confections as School of Rock and the more recent Me & Orson Welles. Sure, Fast Food Nation flopped, but it sounded like an interesting failure, at least. Keep experimenting, Link!

ALFONSO CUARÓN for Y Tu Mamá También (which almost made the list), Children of Men, and the first Harry Potter adaptation that tried to do something other than a slavish scene-by-scene recreation of the books

WERNER HERZOG for continuing to document with his magnificently idiosyncratic style the quests of magnificently idiosyncratic, often insane individuals (see, e.g., Grizzly Man and Encounters at the End of the World, two movies that also almost made the top 25).

STEVEN SODERBERGH: I may not like all your films, but I like your variety, sir, and I admire your guts to pursue whatever project tickles your fancy. Carry on!

PIXAR: I can't express how refreshing it is to have a studio we can rely on for consistently high-quality cinema and child-friendly entertainment that doesn’t insult the adult intelligence. Here's hoping they keep it up into the "teens."

Friday, January 01, 2010

Top Ten Movies of 2009

About this time every year, I find myself ruminating on the futility of "top ten" lists and then invariably making one anyway. This year, I have the double task of reflecting not only on the year just passed but on the last ten, as critics everywhere have been sharing their "best of the decade" (despite the fact that the decade technically didn't start until 2001 and therefore isn't over until 2010!). I'm still deciding what my favorite movies of the "aughts" were, but in the meantime, I've managed to cobble together my list for 2009.

It proved unexpectedly difficult. 2009 saw a bumper crop of films I graded "B+," that is, good, but not great (think three stars), which made it harder than usual to rank them; the ranking of the bottom half of my top ten ended up being more or less arbitrary. It was a year filled with movies elevated by terrific lead performances that almost (but not quite) made me forget flaws of writing, directing, or conception - Carey Mulligan in "An Education"; Colin Firth in "A Single Man"; Matt Damon in "The Informant!"; George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in "Up in the Air" - yet the very best movies were those that had no conventional "stars" at all. Not coincidentally, perhaps, it was also a banner year for animated films (and I haven't even seen "Coraline," "Ponyo," or "The Princess and the Frog"), which my list also reflects, and for promising debut features (Neil Blomkamp's "District 9," Tom Ford's "A Single Man," Duncan Jones' "Moon").

Now comes the disclaimer, another annual tradition: Because of the glut of good movies at the year's end and the annoying tendency of studios distributing foreign films not to release them outside NY and LA until well into the new year, there are many movies not in my top ten that might have been there had I had time and opportunity to see them. And then there are others that for one reason or another I simply missed. Specifically, I have not seen "Precious," "Inglourious Basterds," "Broken Embraces," "The White Ribbon," "Summer Hours," "The Road," "Bad Lieutenant," " The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," and "Crazy Heart," to name just a few. With that caveat, here's my list, with reviews linked.







8. UP



Just missed the cut: BRIGHT STAR; THE INFORMANT!


Top 25 of the decade coming soon...