Film review – Crazy Heart (2009)

18 February 2010
Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges)

Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges)

Former country music star Bad Blake is a character who is living the sort of life that is so often sung about in his chosen music genre. He’s 57, doing third-rate gigs, smoking too much, drinking too much and basically all washed up. While his former protégée Tommy Sweet has vastly overtaken him professionally Bad barely keeps it together by rehashing old songs from his back catalogue to his small, aging but still devoted fans scattered around country USA. Crazy Heart initially evokes Bruce Beresford’s 1983 Tender Mercies due to the strong similarities between the settings and the films’ leading characters but it is a superior film.

Jeff Bridges gives the performance of his career as Bad. It’s a part that Bridges has been building up to for years while playing various down-and-out heroes and indeed Bad Blake is not too dissimilar to the jazz pianist character he played in the The Fabulous Baker Boys. Such a character could easily be dislikeable but Bridges gives him a cranky charm and sweet sadness. He is frazzled, lives like a slob and very grumpy but the shine in Bridge’s eyes and the cracks in his voice make us love him.

Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) and Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal)

The entire cast of Crazy Heart is excellent including Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet and Robert Duvall as Bad’s old friend Wayne. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jean, a young divorcee who comes into Bad’s life, and it is wonderful to see a strong female character that is allowed to be both emotional and resilient. The development of Bad and Jean’s relationship is one of the many aspects of Crazy Heart that feels incredibly sincere and genuine. Rather than adhering to the sort of classical Hollywood narrative structure that we are accustomed to seeing in such films, Crazy Heart adopts an authenticity that raises it above what could have been a generic tale of redemption.

Then there are the sensational songs, many of which are performed by Bridges and Farrell, written for the film by T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton. The music performed in Crazy Heart actually becomes more engaging and sophisticated during the course of the film as the characters move from performing songs that are reliable old favourites to trying out more emotive and complex material. You don’t need to be a country music fan to enjoy Crazy Heart but there is a good chance you will become one afterwards thanks to this gracefully restrained and sweet drama.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

26 October 2009
Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer)

Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer)

Terry Gilliam is one of the boldest, most reckless and daring directors working today, with a back catalogue that includes his 1985 masterpiece Brazil, and his excellent 1990s films The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. After the horrible miscalculation that was Tideland (2005), the disappointing The Brothers Grimm (2005) and his failed Don Quixote film (as documented in the 2002 film Lost in La Mancha) it is wonderful to see Gilliam in full form again with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. The Imaginarium is part of a travelling vaudeville show run by Doctor Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), a man whose immortality and ability to guide the imagination of others have come with a price that a mysterious figure named Mr Nick (a.k.a. The Devil himself, played by Tom Waits in an ingenious piece of casting) soon wants Parnassus to make good on. Parnassus’s only hope is to make one last bet with Mr Nick to see who will be the first to seduce five souls. Along with his daughter and two assistants, Parnassus must encourage people to enter the Imaginarium while Tony (Heath Ledger), the latest member of Parnassus’s troupe, does his best to lead people through their imagination down the path of light and joy. However, Tony may not be quite so noble as he seems.

Tony (Heath Ledger)

Tony (Heath Ledger)

As well as having a reputation as an incredible visual craftsperson, Gilliam is also somewhat known for his extraordinary bad luck with getting his films to fruition. During the making of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus Gilliam suffered his most tragic blow to date – the unexpected death of his lead actor Heath Ledger. Ledger had completed all the scenes as Tony set in England but was yet to do the scenes set inside the Imaginarium so Gilliam created the concept that when a person goes inside the Imaginarium they are physically transformed. Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell literally donated their services to play Tony in his three key scenes inside the Imaginarium and the result is quite profound. Not only does the final film feel as if it was intentionally designed for the role of Tony to be played by the four actors, but the film functions as a tribute to Ledger. Depp, Law and Farrell channel Ledger brilliantly and during Depp’s segment he gives a strangely moving speech about dead icons being forever young.

Mr Nick (Tom Waits)

Mr Nick (Tom Waits)

Nevertheless, while The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus for many will be known as Ledger’s last film, this should not overshadow the fact that it is a glorious film in its own right and a testament to Gilliam’s uncompromising vision. The dark whimsical story, hyperactive cinematography, flurry of sound and extraordinary production design are all combined to generate a classic Gilliam serving of cinematic excess taking ideas and motifs from the painting of Salvador Dali and René Magritte, the literature of William S. Burroughs and Lewis Carroll, and the theatre of Bertolt Brecht. The scenes set in everyday England around the carnivalesque travelling show are outlandish enough but when we are taken into the Imaginarium absolutely anything goes. Gilliam embraces the beloved dream logic of the surrealists to an astonishing degree in these scenes and the results are truly spectacular.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a wild, surreal and uninhibited unleashing of Gilliam’s imagination. Yes, it is often muddled, bewildering, chaotic and confusing but it is a film of such power that its sheer visual audacity transcends anything that would have dragged down a lesser film to make it a dream-like experience that you will happily lose yourself in.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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Film review – Pride and Glory (2008)

9 February 2009
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Jimmy Eagan (Colin Farrell) and Ray Tierney (Edward Norton)

For the most part Pride and Glory is a raw examination of the world of cops and the conflict between loyalty towards family and friends, and doing what is right. The Tierney’s are a cop family, all of whom serve the New York City Police Department. There are the two brothers Francis Jr. (Noah Emmerich from Little Children and The Truman Show) and Ray Tierney (Edward Norton), brother in-law Jimmy Eagan (Colin Farrell) and patriarch Francis Sr. (Jon Voight), who is the Chief of Manhattan Detectives. They are a close family and loyal to their fellow officers. When four cops are killed during an ambush it touches all of them. The men had been under Francis Jr’s command and served along side Jimmy. At his father’s request Ray is urged to lead the task force investigating the incident but by doing so Ray finds that his brother and brother-in-law are implicated in the events surrounding the men’s deaths.

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