Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Starring: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall & Colin Farrell
Director: Scott Cooper

At one point in the movie, 57-year-old alcoholic, down-on-his-luck country singer/songwriter Bad Blake (Bridges) explains that the great songs sound like you've already heard them. There's much truth in that statement, and it's an apt description of the movie's charm as well.

A onetime country star who wrote a number of popular tunes, Bad's career is currently in the dumps. He's on a tour traveling hundreds of miles a day in his trusty, beat-up truck in order to play in bowling alleys and bars with a different set of local musicians every night. His diet consists primarily of whiskey and the easily seduced members of his aging fan base. However, things change when he sits down for an interview with struggling young music writer and single mom Jean (Gyllenhaal). The two begin a tentative affair, and not long after that, Bad's manager calls with an offer to have him open a big show for Tommy Sweet (Farrell), a onetime member of Bad's backup band who's now a new-country superstar.

There isn't much pressing drama in Crazy Heart, but that's fine because the key to the film's success is Bridges. Looking and sounding a great deal like Kris Kristopherson, Bridges exudes a lived-in weariness. We see in equal measure how four bad marriages and a long time without a hit have turned him into an alcoholic mess, but we also see the talent and the inner fire that keeps him going even when it looks like his body may be too rundown to continue. On top of everything else, he does his own singing, and his voice has a gravelly authenticity.

The original songs he sings, composed by a number of pro songwriters -- including one of the film's producers, T-Bone Burnett -- sure sound like country standards. All the tunes are catchy and quotable -- most especially Bad's biggest hit, "Falling and Flying"; this is a rare case where the soundtrack alone will work just as well as the movie.

With its tale of an alcoholic faded country star looking for redemption, it's impossible to watch Crazy Heart and not think of Tender Mercies, a fact Cooper is quite aware of. Instead of running from the comparisons, he bravely embraces them by casting that movie's Oscar-winning star, Robert Duvall, as Bad's oldest friend, and it's yet another testament to Crazy Heart that it can stand on its own alongside that classic. Duvall -- who also is credited as a producer on the movie -- gets a pair of scenes to play with Bridges, and their low-key naturalism together is not only affecting for us, but should serve as a lesson for any young actor on the skills required to maintain a decades-long career. There are no histrionics, just two fictional people made flesh and blood before our eyes.

Crazy Heart is certainly familiar. It doesn't surprise with its story, but it surprises with the details in Bridges exquisite performance, and in the honest, plain-spoken way it touches on familiar themes like friendship, redemption, and love. (111 mins.)

My Rating: ***

UP IN THE AIR (2009)

Starring: George Clooney
Director: Jason Reitman

Ryan Bingham (Clooney) makes his living personally handing out pink slips -- he's the top hatchet man at a company that other companies hire when they are downsizing. And since business is booming, his job keeps him on the go constantly. He flies all across the country, staying in a series of nice hotels. And although this itinerant lifestyle prevents him from having any kind of stable, regular life, this doesn't bother him in the slightest -- he's thrilled to be a boy in a traveling bubble. During one particular layover, he strikes up a conversation with Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a fellow savvy traveler. They bond over the ins and outs of various airlines and hotels, and quickly fall into bed. By morning, they are figuring out when their schedules will allow them to meet up again, even though they both make it clear that there are no strings attached.

When Ryan arrives back in the home office, he meets no-nonsense career-oriented twentysomething Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), a fast-rising up-and-comer who wants to change the company's practices and save millions by having the staff fire people remotely via webcams. Furious at the thought of losing a lifestyle he's grown quite comfortable with, he convinces his boss (Jason Bateman) to let him take Natalie on a few trips so that she can learn what it's really like to fire someone.

She learns the ins and outs of dealing with people who've been given the worst news of their lives -- how to handle them firmly but calmly, while serving up a few inspirational platitudes. Clooney brings to these sequences a maturity we haven't seen in his other work -- honestly, if you had to be fired you would want Ryan to do it. But it's precisely the character's ability to comfortably cut ties that makes him a loner in his private life. He conveys Ryan's lone wolf persona not as a defense against life -- a mask to cover up some hidden pain -- but simply as just the way the guy is. That makes his slow transformation -- his realization that Alex might be something more than just another friend with benefits -- all the more realistic.

For its first half, Up In The Air combines the workplace comedy with the road movie, and it's an engaging, entertaining melding of those two durable genres. But where the film surprises is by changing gears halfway through into a bittersweet family comedy. Ryan's sister (Melanie Lynskey) is getting married, and, for possibly the first time in his life, he wants to make a real connection with his siblings. This follows through on yet another plot strand -- Ryan's attempt to make a living as a self-help guru. He has a side gig lecturing about how to manage your life, and he stresses that the weight of relationships in our lives slows us down when life is all about moving forward. Up In The Air is about Ryan learning what's true and what isn't about this speech he's been giving for years.

Reitman's film is so ambitious you can't shake the feeling he's trying to create "The Great American Movie," a summation of where we are right now at the close of the 21st century's first decade. Up In The Air is so truthful, poignant, and entertaining, so assured with its adherence to classical Hollywood structure, that he just might have pulled it off. (109 mins.)

My Rating: ***


Starring: Harry Dean Stanton, Dean Stockwell & Nastassja Kinski
Director: Wim Wenders

Paris, Texas is a haunting vision of personal pain and universal suffering, with Harry Dean Stanton impeccable as the weary wanderer who returns after four years to reclaim his son (Hunter Carson) and search for his wife (Nastassja Kinski). It is the kind of motion picture we rarely see, one that attempts to say something about America and its people - and succeeds.

Oblique, self-satisfied, and slow, like all of Sam
Shepard's writing, but distinguished by fine performances and rich Southwestern atmosphere by director Wenders and cinematograher Robby Miller. this won raves from many critics, so it may be a matter of personal taste.

An often involving, sprawling odyssey against sun-baked landscapes that's another journey to writer Shepard's male-female sexual war zone. A man, missing for several years, is reunited with his brother's family (Stockwell), who've been raising the son he abandoned when his wife ran off. The film's most touching when it creates how the careworn man re-established a relationship with his son. (150 mins.)

My Rating: ***


Starring: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams & Helen Mirren
Director: Kevin Macdonald

Director Macdonald successfully revives the 1970s-style paranoid thriller with State Of Play, a taut and assured reworking of the 2003 BBC series of the same name. Paring down the original six-hour series to a lean 127 minutes, Macdonald and screenwriters Carnahan, Gilroy and Ray barely give the audience a moment to breathe as a veteran reporter and a doe-eyed blogger race through the streets of Washington, D.C., to uncover an ominous political conspiracy.

The story gets under way with two seemingly unrelated incidents: the morning after a low-level drug dealer and a pizza deliveryman are gunned down in a dark alley, a congressman's aide is pushed in front of a moving subway train. When the latter is reported as a suicide by the media, speculations of foul play begin to emerge after the aide's boss, rising U.S. congressman Stephen Collins (Affleck), tearfully announces her death on live television. Collins' old college roommate is Cal McAffrey (Crowe), a reporter for the Washington Globe, who openly resents the preferential treatment given to inexperienced underlings likeWashington Globe Capitol Hill blogger Della Frye (McAdams). As the chairman of a committee overseeing defense spending, Congressman Collins is currently on a campaign against rogue government contractors profiting from the "Muslim terror gold rush" abroad. Beholden to no one, these contractors seem increasingly poised to make their presence known in the U.S., where they are gradually gaining a foothold. When McAffrey discovers that the deceased aide was in fact Congressman Collins' primary researcher in the case against the government contractors, suspicions of conspiracy lead him on a treacherous investigation pointing to corruption at the highest levels of government.

State Of Play is the kind of thriller that starts with a bang and throws in enough twists to tie your brain in knots as the layers of deception are stripped away to pose some genuinely frightening questions: Are we already at the point where independent defense contractors can gun down American citizens within the U.S. without fear of repercussion? If so, how could this have happened while U.S. citizens remain fatally unaware? And what could entice soldiers who once defended their country abroad to now set their crosshairs on innocent Americans? Is it really all about the money?

While the primary players are all in top form, it's supporting performances by Mirren, Penn and Bateman that make State Of Play compulsively watchable. Bateman in particular injects the film with a healthy dose of humor and energy in the third act, when he appears in the role of a pill-head PR agent who could hold the key to blowing the entire investigation wide open. A rare treat for cinema lovers starved for the days when scruffy newspaper reporters fearlessly sniffed out corruption, State Of Play delivers the kind of conspiratorial thrills that would have made Pakula proud. (127 mins.)

My Rating: ***1/2