Thursday, February 18, 2010

Crazy Heart: Not Another One-night Stand

Writer/director Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart is the country music version of The Wrestler. A has-been loner struggles to regain career, love and self-respect. While alcohol runs his life, singing legend Bad Blake’s life consists of a downward spiral of one-night stands of both varieties. Bowling alleys, bars and baby-boomer groupies.

After four previous nominations, Jeff Bridges might pull off the Best Actor Oscar that eluded Mickey Rourke last year. He was robbed, of course. Bridges’ gravely voice and roadmap face are tailor-made for his role. He oozes authenticity from start to finish or perhaps it’s just sweat. If it’s not the Academy Award makeup, then Jeff should take the cure immediately.

The plot is pedestrian and predictable which suits the country/romantic-drama genre perfectly. It’s melody drama rather than melodrama.

The rest of the cast make the best of their roles. Maggie Gyllenhaal, of Dark Knight fame, gives a suitably sweet and mercifully understated performance as his love interest Jean Craddock. Predictably Jack Nation, as her young son Buddy, steals most of his scenes. Robert Duvall does a solid but less than memorable job as Bad’s mate.

Apart from the battle with the booze and the romantic tension, the real drama centres on his rivalry with former protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) who basks in the top-billing that was once Blake’s preserve.

Hard to judge if the songs are as good as the script trumpets, but that's for country fans to decide. Singer/songwriter Ryan Bingham brings a genuine note to his brief appearance with Weary Kind. Bridges and Farrell sing their numbers. a creditable job for Colin whose IMDb bio claims he is tone deaf. Perhaps that helps.

Clichés, platitudes and aphorisms are the grits of the lyrics. The movie’s tag ‘The harder the life, the sweeter the song’ sums it up. Fortunately, though he’s a slow learner, Bad knows when to fold ‘em and doesn’t dwell too much on his mistakes. He’d have to do nothing else.

Crazy Heart is an enjoyable, sentimental journey. We know from the start that good will triumph over Bad. They only die in the songs.

The Hurt Locker: No Place for Heroes

Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker is a well crafted film, with a tight, engrossing script by Mark Boal. It is visually appealing if that term can be used to describe Baghdad’s urban battleground. It tells the story of a US army bomb disposal team in Iraq in 2004.

The direction is virtually flawless with hardly a wasted shot during its 131 minutes. She maintains suspense during several long sequences, in part by using the leader’s rogue behaviour that puts himself and his team in regular jeopardy. The actors are deftly handled with authority and precision. Jeremy Renner gives a disturbing portrayal of Sergeant First Class William James, leader of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit. His strong performance more than earns his 2010 Oscar nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role.

Despite having a wife and child back home, the protagonist/antagonist is a loner who only opens up through hard liquor and macho camaraderie. Keeping faith with the military cliché/pun, he is a loose cannon who takes clearly unacceptable risks with his own life and his comrades. His team members Sergeant J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) do not share his fatalism, bravado and apparent death wish. James’ personal struggle is not with the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) but with the human side - the innocent victims, the collateral damage of the insurgents’ bombing campaign.

It’s hard not to have problems with subject matter that is not only very confronting but whose multiple layers will appeal to diverse audiences. The horror and inhumanity of war may well be lost on those looking for an action adventure. You have to wonder whether this is an intentional marketing tool. The official website talks about “the military’s unrecognised heroes”.

Nevertheless, it tells an important story of our times, without too much moralising or in-your-face propaganda. It shares this with Ridley Scott’s 2001Black Hawk Down that is a poorer but very popular cousin in this war/action/drama genre. It may be the result of James’ space age protective body suit and Sanborn’s race, but the individuals are easier to identify than in Scott’s thriller.

They are also easier to identify with, as there is much greater character development. The strong cast includes memorable cameos: Guy Pearce, yet another Australian actor playing a US soldier; David Morse as a gung-ho Colonel who would fit comfortably into Apocalypse Now; Ralph Fiennes as a British bounty hunter; and Christopher Sayegh as the Iraqi boy Beckham.

There is probably too much predictability in the plot but then it is catering for a mass audience.

The Hurt Locker is one of the best American war movies since Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. It deserves its 9 Oscar nominations.