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Thursday, January 21, 2010

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.

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