The Ballad Of Bad Blake

CRAZY HEART (Dir. Scott Cooper, 2009)

Early this week Jeff Bridges scored his fifth Oscar nomination for his role as Bad Blake, a crusty Kris Kristopherson-ish country music artist on the comeback circuit. Surprisingly, at least to me, not one of those nominations was for “The Dude” – the iconic Coen Brothers character in THE BIG LEBOWSKI that completely reshaped Bridges’ career despite the fact that he had done much major work in the 30 years before that.

When Bad Blake shows up to perform at a dive bowling alley early in CRAZY HEART, one can’t help but sense the shadow of “The Dude”. It’s felt again when Blake fishes his sunglasses out of a trash can he just puked in, and then there’s the way he passes out when he’s inebriated – yep, there’s a man for his time and place.

But make no mistake – Bad Blake is not “The Dude”. He’s played by the same scruffy aging actor, sure, but Blake is not a comical creation. He’s a hybrid of country music clichés that somehow become a living breathing believable entity – a singer songwriter trapped in one of his own hurting heart songs. He lives gig to gig, bottle to bottle, groupie to groupie, etc.

Maggie Gyllenhall also picked up an Academy Award nomination with her fine though transparent part as a journalist doing a story on Blake. She has a kid (Jack Nation) which the grizzled journeyman bonds with on a morning after the mismatched pair sleep together. Gyllenhall knows Blake is bad for her, but she’s touched by his affection and the idea that he writes songs in her presence.

If you want to go the Western route in this synopsis you could say that as an old guitar slinger Blake has to contend with a young hot kid on the scene; a Keith Urban-esque former protégé played by Colin Farrell. Farrell’s handles his role with aplomb (he provides his own vocals like Bridges) and it’s nice that he doesn’t turn out to be a cutthroat adversary – that would’ve been way too predictable. Sadly, way too predictable describes the rest of the narrative arc.

Nothing happens in CRAZY HEART that you wouldn’t expect with this material. Every element is measured out in a sensible quantity and every set piece falls into its predetermined place, yet the film has a raw appeal. That credit goes completely to Bridges.

Whether character actor or unlikely leading man, Bridges has a charisma that goes deeper than just “The Dude” abiding. His smiling eyes light up his face even when his mouth is agape in a hopeless expression of not quite processing what’s just happened in front of him. When Gyllenhall comes to her senses about having Bad Blake in her life and tells him not to come around anymore, the look on his face alone should win him the Oscar.

Robert Duvall shows up seemingly to remind us of the similar character he played in TENDER MERCIES. Duvall, who seems to be living cameo to cameo these days (see THE ROAD), is a father figure to Blake and has one of the film’s best moments singing a sweet acapella version of Billy Ray Shaver’s “Live Forever” in a tranquil fishing scene.

That’s where the movie really soars – music-wise. T. Bone Burnett, along with Ryan Bingham and Stephen Bruton (a former Kristopherson band mate who died last year) crafted an authentic batch of songs that often made me forget the film’s story shortcomings. There’s also well chosen songs like Waylon Jennings’ obvious but apt “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” and Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed Someone” to round out the mix. Maybe it’s a great soundtrack in search of a great film which doesn’t quite materialize, but it’s a sturdy set however you cut it.

So, CRAZY HEART or, as I call it, “The Ballad Of Bad Blake”, contains an Oscar worthy performance, good songs, and an incredibly predictable yet still endearing premise. I can abide with that.

More later…

Ledger’s Last Film: Good But Not Great Gilliam

(Dir. Terry Gilliam, 2009)

Terry Gilliam is infamous for problems plaguing (and sometimes halting) many of the productions of his fantastically far-fetched films, but as I’m sure folks reading this well know, none have been hit harder than this one. The untimely death of Heath Ledger midway through shooting threatened to squash the project, but Gilliam came up with a solution to cast 3 of Ledger’s acting peers to fill in for his remaining scenes.

It helps the conceit that in the story Ledger’s character steps through a magic mirror into another world in which he could be somewhat plausibly changed into another person. It also helps that the 3 actors filling in just happen to be very big names in the business: Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.

Given these circumstances, the finished film works better than it has a right to. Working with a much lower budget than before, Gilliam knows how to draw an audience in to a strange setting, one that’s familiar to fans with its ratty stage folk and tall tales that just might be true. In the title role, Christopher Plummer, made to look ten times scragglier than usual, leads a group of show folks making their way around modern day London in a make-shift stage vehicle. The group is made up of the Doctor’s daughter (Lily Cole), a clever but neurotic magician (Andrew Garfield), and an out-spoken dwarf (Verne Troyer) who has many of the films best lines.

Plummer tells his daughter (and us) his bizarre back story (well, bizarre if you’ve never seen a Gilliam film before) involving a deal with the Devil (a terrific Tom Waits) and the darkening of his visions. When crossing a bridge in the middle of the night the traveling troupe comes across Ledger hanging from a noose. They get him down and find he’s still alive. When he comes to the next day he asks where he is. Troyer answers:

“Geographically, in the Northern Hemisphere. Socially, on the margins. Narratively, with some way to go.”

Ledger has no memory of his life before his suicide attempt so he joins the Imaginarium players, soon making changes to their set and presentation. A crumbled newspaper page blowing around the rubble of the seedy dank underworld they call home reminds Ledger of his shady background, but he continues to go along with the troupe especially after learning that the Doctor’s Imaginarium is no scam.

The film beautifully builds up to when Ledger first goes through the mirror and the transition to Johnny Depp is successfully smooth. Depp has the briefest bit of the guest replacement actors, but makes the most of it with his patented eyebrow exercises and dance moves. Jude Law and Colin Farrell are well suited for the smarmy greedy parts of Ledger’s personality that emerge in further mirror excursions if indeed that’s what they were supposed to symbolize.

Such errant elements in the second half don’t gel well and key plot points are muddled or clumsily glossed over, but that Gilliam was able to complete this film to as coherent as it is makes up for a great deal of defects.

THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN is the closest relative IMAGINARIUM has in Gilliam’s canon. Both deal with wizened old men spinning legends out of their outrageous realities; performing their fables on the sideshow circuit, laying in wait for fortune or death – or both. IMAGINARIUM has a much lower budget that MUNCHAUSEN, yet it benefits from less aesthetic indulgence and its smaller scale gives it more intimacy.

It’s far from Gilliam’s best movie, and it’s far from Ledger’s best performance, but as a salvaged final project, I’m glad THE IMAGINARIUM exists. It’s a mixed bag of a movie (and may still have been had Ledger lived), but it’s a still a fairly fun film and a fitting tribute. At the end we are told that this is “A film from Heath Ledger and friends.” I know it’s lame to say that ‘it’s the thought that counts’, but dammit – it counts the most here.

More later…