Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Back to the Movies

Crazy Heart

I wanted to catch it before the Academy Awards but better watching it late on the big screen than waiting for the DVD, especially to see the beautiful cinematography (set in the wide open spaces of the American southwest). Jeff Bridges is certainly brilliant as the alcoholic country singer struggling with a late mid-life crisis. He and the other actors (especially Maggie Gyllenhaal) are what make this film such a joy to watch. And Bridges has always been one of my favourite actors (I remember loving him in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot back in the early 70’s and then there was Starman and The Fisher King, etc.). Nevertheless, I still thought Colin Firth’s performance in A Single Man was better and that Firth deserved the Oscar as much as Bridges.

Of course, this may have something to do with the fact that I thought A Single Man was a better film than Crazy Heart. Not that I found any flaws in Crazy Heart. Besides the great acting and cinematography, we have a story that is beautifully, quietly and intelligently told, with minimal sentimentality. We understand Bad Blake intimately, all the more because the story is so simple and elegant while avoiding cliches (especially noticeable in the way the film handles Blake’s relationship with country star Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell). For what it is, Crazy Heart is an excellent film. But I am not a fan of country music (although I have always admired the eccentric T Bone Burnett and was glad to see him win an Oscar) and Scott Cooper’s story just never drew me in the way a film I love has to do. So a solid ***+ effort, and my mug is up, but I like a slightly darker roast inside.

The Last Station

Another Academy Award nominee that just arrived in Winnipeg (where it won’t stay long, given the fact that I sat all alone in a theatre that can hold 500), The Last Station tells the story of the last days of one of the most important figures of western thought and literature, Leo Tolstoy, focusing on the relationship between Tolstoy and his wife as seen through the eyes of a young Tolstoyan idealist who comes to work for Tolstoy (and who is experiencing a traumatic relationship of his own).

Like Crazy Heart, The Last Station boasts stellar performances, this time by Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, who both deserved their Oscar nominations, as well as James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti and Kerry Condon (who has a bright future ahead of her). The problem with The Last Station is either the writing or the direction (Michael Hoffman did both). It seems to be striving for an epic quality which it can’t pull off. The result is a film that lacks focus. I enjoyed the Valentin (McAvoy) storyline very much, but it never seems to connect properly with the Tolstoy storyline that consistently overwhelms it.

Maybe I was just wanting more ideas and less drama. Like Creation (Darwin), The Last Station is particularly strong when it deals with ideas but it doesn’t do so nearly enough. It was their ideas which made Darwin and Tolstoy such important historical figures and even a dramatic biography can afford to spend a little more time on those ideas and the controversies surrounding them.

Despite this criticism, I enjoyed The Last Station more than Crazy Heart (undoubtedly because I find Tolstoy far more interesting than Bad Blake). But both films are excellent and are to be commended for their humanization and their compassion. The Last Station gets another solid ***+. My mug is up again, but again the taste of its contents needs more flavour.

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