Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Few Films

No matter what you may have heard or read about a film, the experience of actually seeing it almost invariably serves up some surprises in the way of complexity, tone, and nuances of plot that make the experience worthwhile. I say almost—but there are exceptions, and I saw one the other day. If you have read a three-sentence synopsis of Crazyheart, you have seen the film. It has no complexity and no surprises. Jeff Bridges lumbers through the film just as we might imagine he would; Maggie Gyllenhaal is full of personality and loveliness, as we have come to expect. The New Mexico scenery is sort-of attractive, the country-western songs are sort-of likable. We’re given no clue as to why the central character, Bad Blake, drinks so much—evidently some things went wrong in his life. Colin Ferrell is badly mis-cast as Blake’s former protégé who is now far more popularity on the country-western circuit.

Don’t get me wrong. Crazyheart is a (mildly) entertaining film, though nothing in it is original or in any way “deep.” It’s less dramatic than The Wrestler but easier to watch, presuming you’d rather see Bridges throw up into garbage cans and toilets than see Mickey Rourke beat people over the head with folding chairs. But it’s basically a horse apiece.

The Last Station explores a similar theme—the career crisis of a talented artist—with considerable greater skill. The individual in question happens to be Leo Tolstoy, who, unlike Bad Blake, was, near the end of his life, perhaps the most famous artist in the world. His problem is to find a little peace on his estate, where he’s surrounded by groupies, followers of his “life” philosophy, and a nagging wife who feels she’s lost the affection of her husband and is also at risk of losing her legal rights to his immensely popular works. We are introduced to the family via the arrival of a new secretary, a naïve but sensitive devotee of Tolstoyism whose adventures at the communal farm nearby also fuel a romantic subplot. The cast includes Christopher Plummer, Helen Murrin, James McEvoy and Paul Giametti, and the production values are high. There seems to be no compelling reason why this particular story needs to be told, but it’s a lot of fun watching it unfold.

Then we have Jan Troell’s Everlasting Moments, a film shot is sepia tones about a working class Swedish family during the early decades of the twentieth century. The father is a headstrong philanderer and sometime drunk, the mother holds the family together emotionally and keeps herself sane taking pictures with a camera she won with a lottery ticket. The story is narrated by one of the daughters, and it offers an engaging, if slow-moving, recreation of family life in those times of servants and masters, strikes and unemployment, weekly baths in the parlor and horse-drawn carriages. Everlasting Moments lacks the sweep of the films for which Troll is best known—The Emigrants, The New Land, and Hamsun; in fact, he shot it with 16 mm stock, which gives it a closed-in feel. But that suits the largely-domestic character of the story. Watching it is like thumbing through a beautiful Scandinavian family album, but with a lot more action and misery than such collections usually contain.

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