Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Pip and the Prince

Pip and Prince Myshkin convened in the pub,
Placating their bellies with ale and grub.
The locals were breathless in disbelief,
As Charles and Fyodor runically gleamed
And thieved a moment from our time, whose style
Is still syballantly virile. Meanwhile,
The substance of benevolence follows
Shyly. On the marshes or in Moscow,
What a good man is remains unanswered.
The vice of the young to prove they're well-read
Is why Pip and the prince are here, I guess.
"I shouldn't have brought you here", Pip confessed.
And out of dread, the idiot spoke thus:
"We're here to be punished, the both of us".

Sunday, 28 March 2010

Kick-Ass (2010)

* * * *

(Dir. Michael Vaughn, 2010)

After the impressive Layer Cake and the vexing Stardust, Kick-Ass is Matthew Vaughn's most significant directorial feature to date. Marketed as a superhero movie, Kick-Ass could melt any audience (except, perhaps, the most squeamish of bourgeois picture houses) into exchangeable rapids of laughter and dejection. Love, hate or indifferent-to comic books, this is a truly genre-less celluloid, 'illustrating' violence, companionship and observational comedy, paced clinically and coloured prismatically, and with all the power of a cult sensation.

Kick-Ass is the story of ordinary American teen, Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), who creates for himself an alter-superhero-ego named 'Kick-Ass'. Of course his two, comics-fan friends are not aware of this, and there's something lovably High Fidelity - Rob, Barry and Dick - written into their geek's bona fide. Another comedic backdrop is Dave's / Kick Ass's romance with the high school it-girl, Katie, who lets him into her world mistaking Dave for a gay best friend. Kick Ass's costume - which, at his most self-deprecating, Dave describes as a 'wetsuit' - is a green-and-gold one-piece reminiscent of Cathy Freeman sprinting at Sydney 2000, and which looks especially lousy when Kick-Ass is practising his moves in the mirror, or learning to battle cliched crooks in car parks.

As soon as he appears in public, Kick-Ass is as entertaining and vulnerable an escapist vision as we could hope for. After being filmed defending a victim of ultra-violence, Kick Ass's suddenly enormous popularity on YouTube and MySpace is completely believable, take for instance the recent, overnight Gap Yah phenomenon. A contemporary tapestry of social realism makes for clumsiness-humour at its cringeworthy best. There are classically awkward encounters in the canteen or by the lockers; and in the privacy of a teenager's bedroom, a heap of used Kleenex demonstrates a lust encompassing busty teachers, perplexing pornography and sweetheart crushes.

A twelve-year old would have to be a genuine prodigy in order to steal as clever a film as Kick-Ass from its adult cast, but Chloe Moretz - recognisable from The Amityville Horror (the 2005 remake obviously) and 500 Days of Summer - really is a director's blessing. Never has a gulf in acting talent been more conspicuous onscreen than when Moretz and the parochial Nicolas Cage ( come crashing into the action. These are the real superheroes, Big Daddy and daughter, Hit-Girl, who save our vulnerable faux vigilante and fight the criminals who have mistaken Kick-Ass as a threat, in action sequences of the highest order.

Big Daddy is an intelligent physical and vocal pun on Batman, and his dialogue with Hit-Girl is dainty throughout. But Cage's acting is typically offensive. In a torture-sequence meaning to probe at the depths of our anxiety, Big Daddy screams like a play-acting child demanding his mother's attention, marking a blemish on an otherwise convincing piece of work. And though Aaron Johnson's lead-performance is consistent and strong, Kick Ass's intermittent narration - the diary of an American-dreaming teenager - is bound to get on cynical British nerves, and I was certainly guilty of impatience on this front. Meanwhile Monetz is charming or shocking in her every frame, the very definition of cool in her purple leather; smiling sweetly, murdering brutally, blowing kisses, making swearing funny (which is more difficult than it sounds) and mock-referencing Cat Woman. We can only hope that her early birth into Hollywood will suit Chloe Monetz; that time will sharpen as opposed to blunt her extraordinary potential.

Kick-Ass is concerned with the process of superhero films, just as the original comic book series (by Mark Millar and Johnny Romita Jr) acknowledged its canon. But self-reflexivity in this motion picture is what it should be - an afterthought - as constantly charismatic characters distract even the most stoical of analysts from a moment's philosophising. The 117 minutes of running time, produced by Brad Pitt, disappear like sand through our jittery fingers. The last crystals shimmer as they fall and prequel a second feature I am already excited about. I enjoyed Kick-Ass and would recommend it to anybody wanting a fun, exhilarating night-out.


If this week passes,
What has changed, if anything?

I can not write,
Will not write, new words

A week passes
And I change everything - all of this -

Out of purple blossom,
Something to obstruct mirrors and single beds.
Out of pink and purple blossom,
The unprecedentedly sensible head.


Indefatigably, red is the glow where the soul is.

Quiet sacrifice, a life lost in seconds;
red is a colour.

I have few feelings but am stunned by the grief of the world,
Fascinated by people.

I want to see a lit match present itself thus:

A body bled to death by a hunter.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Brazil 2014: Pontification

1. Hart
2. Glen Johnson
5. Rio Ferdinand
6. Phil Jagielka
3. A Cole
4. Jack Rodwell
8. Tom Huddlestone
10. James Milner (vc)
7. Aaron Lennon
11. Jack Wilshere
9. Wayne Rooney (c)

12. Onuhoa 13. Green 14. Smalling 15. Cattermole 16. Gerrard 17. A Johnson 18. Defoe 19. Baxter 20. Zamora 21. A Young 22. Bertrand 23. Foster

Assistant Coach: (Sir) David Beckham
Head Coach: (Sir) Roy Hodgson

This is an utterly pointless exercise but it beats watching Deal or No Deal or pretending to do my job properly. I'm bored by the constant talk about players battling for World Cup places so instead I've skipped implausibly ahead to Brazil 2014. Why not? It's a fun debate-catalyst, allowing fans to exaggeratedly promulgate the best young talent at their football club. This is unless you 'follow' Chelsea where the talent is mostly continental (purchase the latest Football Manager for further details, or simply to escape the real world and have statues built in your honour).

Joe Hart - who else? - dons the gloves, having spent four years avoiding the zealous gazes of journalists waiting for him to make a howler and destroy his confidence. Green and Foster watch on hopelessly. Hart has been in superb form this season and is a terrific prospect for future major tournaments. In defence, Phil Jagielka takes over from the lovely John Terry. Ferdinand is the new Paulo Maldini. And Cole and Johnson, aka Carlos and Cafu, are still capable of wonderful full-back play in the winter of their careers. In reserve, the versatile Onuoha, Hodgson's old-boy Chris Smalling and the pacy left-back, Ryan Bertrand, provide adequate cover. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard's apprentice, James Milner, shares a midfield with already one of the most accomplished playmakers in the Premiership, Tom Huddlestone, and (not yet) complete footballer and athlete extraordinaire, Everton's Jack Rodwell.

An array of substitute-options includes matured enforcer, Lee Cattermole, a greying Gerrard and a well-sanded Adam Johnson (who no longer represents Manchester City since the Arabs thought f**k it and walked away and left behind an elephantine wage-bill that meant liquidation... and FC United and FC City and AFC Wimbledon are all now part of the Football League... and the MK Dons stadium has been reduced to rubble and a fast-food restaurant... and here, chef Ferguson, confused by his oven-clock, yells at waiters Benitez and Wenger [who wants 'more protection'] to fetch drinks for the Redknapp family and James Corden who are out celebrating another triumphant publicity stunt... and later Arry will tell Corden he is his real son, and that Jamie was just some good-looking, good-passing bait for extra media attention... and this will explain many things).

Up front, England's captain, and one of the few survivors from the 2010 World Cup winning team, is three times World Player of the Year, Wayne Rooney, who - like Hodgson - is now fluent in several languages, reads Milton and attends ballet in his spare time (incidentally, Coleen has replaced Carol Ann Duffy as Poet Laureate). Rooney is supported by Aaron Lennon and Jack Wilshere, two different but equally entertaining threats. At the very top of the game, 4-3-2-1 is becoming more and more popular and successful a formation, and seems to be the best system for Rooney. Another Hodgson old-boy, Bobby Zamora, has continued to develop into a player fit for an England shirt, while Ashley Young, Jermain Defoe and Everton wonderkid, Jose Baxter, offer pace, skill and taut finishing as super subs.

Becks is an inspirational Assistant to Hodgson. And wise Woy is a worthy successor to Capello whose tactical genius saw England win the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. After injuries to Beckham, Lennon, Wright Phillips, Downing and Ashley Young, Rory Delap (no longer Nothern Irish) was drafted into the squad. In the dying seconds of extra time against Germany, Crouchy gets his head to a Rory Delap throw-in. The victory parade is witnessed by millions, and when 'Smithy' tries to climb onboard and make a speech, he's greeted by eggs, coins and glass bottles.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

West London; a match-night, a moment in history

The Premiership years in the Craven Cottage home dug-out: first there was tooth-picking Jean Tigana. Then the admirable Chris Coleman who established Fulham FC as a top-flight cast-member. Briefly and bizarrely, a bedraggled Lawrie Sanchez struggled at the helm. And then on 28th December 2007, a long-absent Roy Hodgson returned from abroad with spoils and references and scouting links ripe for a rescue operation; an Odysseus setting up a splendid home for his winter years, he really did take control. OK, maybe there was no Scandinavian scouting system in Homer but it is true that Hodgson's words fall like snowflakes. He could shelve a library with the taught transcripts from his always-humble and insightful interviews. He walks to his dug-out in that picturesque old-fashioned ground politely acknowledging his support, forever radiating perspicacity and dignity.

This evening, in a historical moment for
Fulham Football Club, they faced Juve in the second leg of their Round-of-16 Europa League tie, facing a 3-1 deficit after an encouraging display in Turin. This was supposed to be another fun night-out for the Fulham faithful, with little chance of turning the game on its head, even against a depleted Juventus in disarray. The likes of Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Del Piero know how to fly around Europe and win football matches. But after Fulham went 1-0 down and the tie looked to be over, Bobby Zamora made Fabio Cannavaro look like Titus Bramble in the Juve box, and punished the pensioner with a precise equalizer. Things would only get worse for Cannavaro who was sent off, harshly, judged to be the last man when bringing down Zoltan Gera who was, perhaps, through on goal. But the two goals from Gera either side of half time were just rewards for Fulham's fluidity and determination, and for much of the second half, the score remained at 3-1. Then Dempsey, and history, struck.

Clint Dempsey's exquisite chip into the top corner to win the tie for
Fulham is yet another ominous warning for England that our (generally) blinkered football press will no doubt overlook. Fantastic group, USA, no threat, was the unanimous reaction emerging from internet, radio and television broadcasts, immediately following the World Cup draw. And they may - I hope - prove correct. However, USA are, after all, a team not dissimilar to Fulham in their absolute unity and impressive work rate. They also beat (probably) the best team in the world, Spain, to reach the Confederations Cup Final last year, and if fit, they boast a player in Dempsey who ought to be dubbed a match-winner. It was his unexpected return from injury that lifted the Cottagers this evening, along with Etuhu's physical presence, Duff's best form, Konschesky's energy, Zamora and Gera's clinical finishing and their equally important industry. Hence Fulham, especially at home, really do defend from the front, right down to the magnificent Mark Schwarzer, whose ability and consistency between Premiership goalposts is bettered only by Jose Reina; for my money, Liverpool's best player.

With the limited resources and thin squad available to him, Roy
Hodgson saved Fulham from relegation in a miracle escape in 2008, qualified for the Europa League in 09, and in 2010 Fulham have remained a top-half club while making (at least) the Quarter Finals of both the FA Cup and Europa League having beaten holders, Shaktar Donesk, and now Juventus. Considering the predictability and rigidity in 21st century football, I know from memory, and an understanding of sport, that Hodgson has achieved as much as any manager in my lifetime. There is a difference between achieving and winning though I imagine this goes over the heads of many a glory-hunting, or simply impatient, football fan. For Fulham, the dream of winning silverware is - unbelievable though it may seem - now a possibility. But the dream of winning the league for the historically successful Manchester United and Arsenal or for the financial-playdough champions, Blackburn (1995) and Chelsea (2005, 2006) was nothing like as glorious as Fulham's progress to within a game from Wembley, three games from lifting the FA Cup for the first time in their history, and three ties from lifting a European trophy, also, for the first time in their history. The oldest professional team in London at 131-years-old, Fulham are still yet to win a professional trophy.

On Tuesday night, a graceless footballing institution, proud of its poor-excuse-for-a-human-being captain, exited the Champions League, once again, amid scenes of deplorable sportsmanship and technical complacency. Tonight, in West London, one of the true towering institutions in world football was overcome. Beaten. Humiliated. And as a 62-year-old gentleman walked the touchline victorious, pointing his beak through the contiguous Thames-air, musked reassuringly on a match-night of pies and stale beer, he heard his name sung, his place in history secured, as fathers whispered into sons' ears:
Remember This Night. But Roy Hodgson remained composed, simply smiled at the fathers and their sons, and waved a wave never intended for the rolling and flashing cameras of the press.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

In This Recurring Dream

Skeletons stand in rows across entire farms,
In scarves,
The wind bursting through each set of bones
Like a whistle in the restless mouth of a boy.

Bones tell us nothing about life or death:
White milk, wide open textbooks in laboratories,
film props,
These perfunctory things will outsmart the heart,
Survive like an ugly poem in a time capsule.

Legacies diminish,
And even if I smile, love several women more,
Believe in a brilliant god;
Liberties diminish.

Tonight, let even be enough:

Passing poverty,
My white sail is a healthy bone.
I wear a scarf,
Smelling of myself, and exit.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Classic Review: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

(Dir. Andrew Dominik, 2007)

* * * * * *

He was growing into middle age, and was living then in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. He installed himself in a rocking chair and smoked a cigar down in the evenings as his wife wiped her pink hands on an apron and reported happily on their two children. His children knew his legs, the sting of his mustache against their cheeks. They didn't know how their father made his living, or why they so often moved. They didn't even know their father's name. He was listed in the city directory as Thomas Howard. And he went everywhere unrecognized and lunched with Kansas City shopkeepers and merchants, calling himself a cattleman or a commodities investor, someone rich and leisured who had the common touch. He had two incompletely healed bullet holes in his chest and another in his thigh. He was missing the nub of his left middle finger and was cautious, lest that mutilation be seen. He also had a condition that was referred to as "granulated eyelids" and it caused him to blink more than usual as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept. Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified. He considered himself a Southern loyalist and guerrilla in a Civil War that never ended. He regretted neither his robberies, nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to. He had seen another summer under in Kansas City, Missouri and on September 5th in the year 1881, he was thirty-four-years-old.

On the back cover of the Souvenir Press edition of Ron Hansen's 1983 novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, centred and emboldened, is an excerpt from the Newsday's review: "Hansen has turned low history into high art". The same can be said for Andrew Dominik's (flawless) screen adaptation. The above narration prologues his movie and synesthetically exposits and eases the audience into its cosmos.

Brad Pitt is extraordinary as over-the-hill Jesse James waiting to be assassinated, either by law-enforcers or outlaws; he is the most wanted man in America. The horse-riding, trilby-donning, cigar-smoking and conscious fame -- You know what John Newman Edwards once wrote about me? -- are pulled off in an unfathomably cool mien. And the ablation of his sanity -- My God, what just happened? I could hear your gears grinding- rrr,rrr,rrr-and your little motor wondering, 'My Gosh, what's next, what's happening to me?' You were precious to behold, Bob. You were white as spit in a cotton field! -- is sincerely tragic. It says a great deal about the Academy Awards that Pitt was nominated for Best Actor in a Lead Role for his sterile performance in The (not very) Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but snubbed entirely for his extraordinary character-execution of America's most loved anti-hero just two years before.

However the film's outstanding actor is surely Casey Affleck as Bob Ford, about whom everything is unpredictable and inglorious. We know what's going to happen from the title, if not the legend, but when, how and why the assassination transpires - and its aftermath - is all the meaningfulness here. Jesse's candour and orneriness, and Bob's eagerness and lust, ricochet. On their fey journey every nuance of feeling is illuminated by body language, soundtrack and our haughty narrator. The whole cast is superb, especially gang members Sam Rockwell (Moon), Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) and Paul Schneider (Bright Star) whose careers have accordingly taken a turn for stardom, or at least considerable critical success since 2007. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is notoriously, perhaps infamously, slow-paced. It's certainly not a film for everybody, and yet the subtleties in every set piece of whatever speed and sound, are breathtaking; whether it's the silent space between Frank and Jesse James, the wispy clouds rushing like fire over the Kentucky skyline, or the way Bob's lips curve into a smile and we can not be sure why.

When this movie was first recommended to me, and no matter who (there have been plenty of worn-down friends and family) I have since introduced Dominik's work to, the same prejudicial doubt is signatured across each 'virgin' face; a doubt that - if put into words - would protest something like this: Jesse James? Bob Ford? Two-and-a-half-hours of poster-boy Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck's brother as cowboys? Spare me. But there's never room for an apology or a glimmer of embarrassment on these faces when the absolving final frame and its symphony have faded: there's only ever awe, the unmistakable, fixed awe of a wax impression. "I need a drink", "Cigarette?", "F*** me"; phrases of this ilk tend to break the silence inspired by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's addictive score that seems, through the slow credits, to mourn the mortality of its movie more so than its protagonists. This is how to transform a novel into a screenplay. This is how to act, edit, direct, and throw light and sound on fascination and betrayal. I'm not ready to write an extensive commentary on the power of this film nor, perhaps, shall I ever be. The light will go out of the eyes of even the world's greatest critics before they can find the right words.

The day before he died was Palm Sunday. And Mr. and Mrs. Howard, their two children and their cousin Charles Johnson strolled to the second Presbyterian Church to attend the 10:00 service. Bob remained at the cottage and slyly migrated from room to room. He walked into the Master bedroom and inventoried the clothes on the hangers and hooks. He sipped from the water glass on the vanity. He smelled the talcum and lilacs on Jesse's pillowcase. His fingers skittered over his ribs to construe the scars where Jesse was twice shot. He manufactured a middle finger that was missing the top two knuckles. He imagined himself at 34. He imagined himself in a coffin. He considered possibilities and everything wonderful that could come true.

Friday, 12 March 2010

Shutter Island (2010)

(Dir. Martin Scorsese, 2010)

Don't invest so much hope in Shutter Island this Spring. The director's name should never matter and though this is one more terrific, addictive creation, I simply can not gauge it. Certainly no star-rating is applicable: I exited longing to head this review with five bold stars for its opaque grief and psychosis but, at the same time, it frustrates by haphazardly juggling politics, theology, Cartesianism and Agatha Christie mystery. Where Rene Clair's 1944 adaptation of Christie's And Then There Were None is a simple tickle, this year's island yarn is swollen with labyrinth-horror and orchestra. It is unsurprising that so many critics have dismissed this season's most eagerly anticipated picture as a two-and-a-half-hour B-movie.

It is impossible to elucidate the plot without a spolier, but it begins with Teddy Daniels (Di Caprio) and partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo), US Marshals, arriving at Shutter Island, home to three psychiatric wards for homicidal mental health patients / criminals; the tension in the punctuation between these two terms is the movie's (feeble) moral dilemma, maintained until the very last frame. Di Caprio is a (young) widower and Second World War veteran who oversaw the liberation of a concentration camp. Now, on Shutter Island, he is supposed to be investigating the disappearance of a missing patient. But increasingly suspicious of head psychiatrist Ben Kingsley, his role on the island is hastily obscured.

We are teased by glimpses of Scorsese at his sagacious best, and as early as the film's opening chapter, we begin to live through Di Caprio's nightmare. The harrowing visuals of the placated patients on the hospital's front lawn, raking the leafless grass or (pictured above) hushing through the already silence, do well to justify a whelming audio. Soon after, in a dream-sequence of Virgilian skill, Di Caprio holds a phantom of his dead wife in his arms as they are rained on by a green confetti of leaves. This, before he despairs as she disappears from his dubious perception. Despite its $80 million budget, this invention of set piece points more towards art film than blockbuster hit. What we know is that this is no tormented genius at work. Shutter Island is the product of an assured, comfortable book-writer and film-maker, tempted by a plot twist that struggles to salvage its bloated bulk.

The atmosphere, the score and Di Caprio are as powerful as the astonishing trailer showcased. But there are flaws; flaws beyond the expendable hyperbole and woodenly acted patients.
In flippant contrast to his masterpiece (and the definitive thriller of the noughties), The Departed, Scorsese's directing in Shutter Island is neither abrupt nor taut. What pauses us from our orderly breathing is jumpy popcorn drama. For instance, when Di Caprio lights a match every ten seconds to a score of Hitchcockian strings as he slowly passes by the cells of deformed killers, or when rushing through corridors or up spiralled staircases, the frantic frames become borish, their discomfort a cramp.

That Shutter Island refers itself to as incongruous a pair of films as Kubrick's The Shining and Hitchcock's Vertigo makes its open-wound, critical fault, gape. Are we supposed to be recalling Jack Nicholson's sick eyes during a chase in the snow, or Kim Novak and her ironic fall? Perhaps we are waiting for an intervention by FBI helicopters or grimacing that something more American Pyscho than Psycho is about to transpire and soak the camera face with blood and entrails? Di Caprio's Ballardian flashbacks to his concentration camp experience, the theological contemplations, and the pencil characterisation of deranged patients suggest too many influences crammed. There are just too many ideas at work here, even for Martin Scorsese.

Considering its chilling ambiance and set-design, and the trail-blazing collaborative CV of Scorsese and Di Caprio, this project promised so much more than it has delivered.
Shutter Island is an intelligent movie-goer's Avatar 3D in the sense that we are invited into an authentic, new landscape which this director can support with both intriguing subject-matter and a plausible script. I hope, though doubt, a second viewing will straighten out my indecision on this one. Dennis Lehane's story, from which the screenplay was adapted, is less complex than what it purports to be, and its rewards are too infrequent for this marathonic distance.

A virtue unique to film is that unlike live sport, music or even theatre, the audience can not actively participate at any moment. I love to be a part of a crowd that loses control when I go to White Hart Lane or a gig, but at the movies it's the moving image, myself and my time. When a film finishes, the actors cannot hear their audience clap, will not bow or curtsy and wave. For the two and a half hours in a Scorsese picture - and this is his magnificence - the shutters rattle and flash between these two distinct worlds. We drink in fiction, fiction refills, however disturbing and enticing in equal measure. And even if the twist in Shutter Island fails to surprise or satisfy, a hero and a brave director's imagery flourish in a medium fit for the sublime: intelligent Hollywood.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Crazy Heart (2009)

* * * *

(Dir. Scott Cooper, 2009)

So where do all those songs come from?

Life unfortunately.

The comparisons between Crazy Heart and last year's
The Wrestler have been cumbersome but unavoidable, as Scott Cooper's double Academy Award winning movie succeeds in debunking another cultural myth that has become the status quo (particularly in Britain): country singers are charming but bland, and sing soberly for drunk redneck audiences. Likewise wrestling is supposedly a fake, glamorous adventure, yet we believe in Mickey Rourke's suffering, or it is foolish not to. Unfortunately The Wrestler is a far more complete movie, cutting constantly and furiously between the exhaustion of love and lust and broken bodies. Meanwhile Crazy Heart's slow pace is infrequently justified; Cooper doesn't dig deep enough to reveal the worst artefacts of alcoholism. Instead, protagonist Bad Blake crashes his van breaking an ankle, drunkenly vomits in his bathroom, ruins a promising romance with a pretty journalist by losing her son at a bar for a couple of hours. And comfortably, Bad is rehabilitated for the film's final chapter without an audience to sing to, without a family to go home to. Contrast this with The Wrestler, where Randy is reacquainted with his only true family - the wrestling community - and performs for them until the very last, unforgettable, frame.

Crazy Heart, Bad Blake, a single, past-it, alcoholic country musician, discloses to the new love of his life: "I was never one for country charm". The dye is cast, and Jeff Bridges's career-defining character is 57-years-old, having failed his talent, his four marriages and the son he has never known. The momentum for the plot is that Bad's music has influenced an old friend and commercially successful country performer, Tommy Sweet (a smart Colin Farrell), who now takes pity on Bad and invests in the resurrection of his career. But Brad is (accidentally) sceptical, (accidentally) self-harmful and (accidentally) still able to make great music. Perhaps like 'The Dude', the appeal of Jeff Bridges's new cult hero is that he, too, is both naturally cool and naturally enlightening.

Crazy Heart is sculpted with the kind of emotional dexterity that makes a movie stronger second time around. A single mother checks on her little boy, asleep in his pyjamas. On a day out, a hot air balloon returns gently to the surface of the earth, mother and son in its dreamy basket, all smiles, Bad waiting for them on crutches. Bad has stepped in to play husband to Jean and father to Buddy, a brief act, as if for a musical, and inevitably he pays for his drink-habit by losing both. Many reviews suggest that Crazy Heart's artistry can be solely attributed to Jeff Bridges, but this simply isn't true. The film only really begins when Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal: Paris Je t'aime, The Dark Knight) is introduced. She is an amateur music journalist, fascinated by Bad, whose peneterative eyes locate his dormant charisma, our first serious distraction from the directionlessness and vastness of the film's country landscape. Indeed the tonality is so wild and barren that we, along with these American dreamers, are urgently reawakened when an urban unit of skyscrapers and busy noise enters percussively and with unremitting possibility into the narrative for its final thrust.

Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett's Academy Award winning best song,
The Weary Kind, mustn't be neglected: the ballard is paramount in driving home sorrow, in sinking heavy hopes, and when Bridges dons the guitar, the always-paradigmatic harmonies are touching, visceral, accomplished. So when Bad is losing faith in his guitar and in his words, succumbing to drink, who else to recover a film, if we were experiencing any doubts, than Robert Duvall? Duvall features as an aphoristic-talking cowboy-philosopher, "It's never too late son... Comon, we're going fishing", and through his assuming paternity, a vintage cameo reassures us that despite any ending, Bad Blake will not die alone.

Bridges has it all: from whispering sinlessly,
I love you, to Gyllenhaal in absolute privacy, to smoking and strumming in his shades, pending a cigarette, sipping a whisky, to composing poetry out of wretchedness in specs, and to put all this into music, Crazy Heart is the sum of its parts - cool, seductive and still sad. It's Bridges winking, Gyllenhaal blushing, acoustic strings, tobacco smoke in the air, a cowboy hat in the way of a kiss: these are the timeless images to treasure. Far from instant classic status, Crazy Heart is a dry throat of a film, quenched by an oasis of meaningful words whose voices and chords might just endure. I chose the above photograph, though it clashes with Bad Blake's weariness, because at last night's Academy Awards a triumphant Jeff Bridges meant artistic justice.

Nobody and Polyphemus

Where wine played an important role,
I tricked and tortured a clumsy monster,
Escaped beneath his shepherdless sheep,
One ear pressed against an ancient animal's hearbeat.

Where these ideas pulse and beg,
A needle is pricking a goosebump,
And I hear my calling from a tall stage
In the emptiest stadium.

Where whirlwinds unite down-glaringly,
Why can't the surviving hero be me?
Where Penelope slept,
I bend out and yawn, resembling an awesome rainbow.

Where the ego is burdensome,
I've wept at living this derivative life.
Where I can accept I,
I am busy really loving you and I.

I write my love as nobody,
Lacing luminous hopes through loneliness,

The way a chained moon will shine.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

The Last Station (2009)

* * *

(Dir. Michael Hoffman, 2009)

James McAvoy (Atonement, The Last King of Scotland) is the young scholar and virgin, Valentin Bulgakov, recruited as personal secretary to Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) in the political philosopher's final months. He is appointed by Tolstoy's chief disciple, the unnervingly calm Vladimir Chertkov. The audience perceives everything through Bulgakov and as he begins to learn firsthand who Leo Tolstoy really is (the Leo Tolstoy of the biographer and director), we forsake the expected political and spiritual idealism for a more disturbing enlightenment: sex, discord and self-doubt. Bulgakov becomes part of the Tolstoy household: he falls in love with the seductive Masha (Kerry Condon), provides emotional support for the ostracised Countess (Tolstoy's wife played by Helen Mirren), attends Tolstoy's business, and is even present at his master's deathbed. While it lasts, Bulgakov's innocence blushes endearingly beside an assured and nostalgic Tolstoy.

The predominant, pleasant setting is rural Russia until we arrive at the title-destination. Here, at a train station, hidden amidst an urban community, Tolstoy passes away in too flimsy a death scene: a fairy tale piano dilutes what should be absolute pathos. The business of the story is Tolstoy's will. He has agreed to donate his fortune to the proletarian cause, to the teaching of his politics through Chertkov who Sofna despises, viewing her husband's decision as a personal betrayal.

Tolstoy is torn between two opposed zeals; that of a passionately possessive wife and a dispassionately possessive disciple. Both means are essentially good: the love of the long-married and the pilgrimage for social justice. And yet both perpetrators, played as skillfully as is possible by Helen Mirren and Paul Giamatti, are rigid and predictable types, forbidden to evolve until Tolstoy is confined to his deathbed (no doubt Hoffman will argue this is the point). This tiring character-dichotomy, causing Tolstoy's plunge from people's prophet to feeble mediator, makes for a lacklustre narrative. In an excellent catharsis however, the plot is reconciled by a stunning encapsulation of public mourning and a dramatic reunion of lovers: the direction amounts to a clever and powerful symbiosis of Tolstoy's public and personal desires.

For a film about the end of Leo Tolstoy's life, The Last Station is callously oversimple. Any picture that aims at tragedy, not by separating romantic love through politics but by separating romantic love from politics, is treading water from the word go. It isn't that Hoffman should shy away from either the communion or the conflict Tolstoy inspired; only I wish the former could have featured more. The Last Station is a writer-biopic whose sentient watercolours can be likened to The Hours (Woolf) and Bright Star (Keats), except this portrait is fleeced of stamina. This is a real shame, particularly since the movie has ironically succeeded at Britain's most commercial picture-hotel; the Odeon. One wonders what Tolstoy would have made of it all.