Category Archives: Road Movie

Sturm and twang: Crazy Heart ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 9, 2010)

Ev’rything’s agin’ me and it’s got me down
If I jumped in the river I would prob’ly drown
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive

-Hank Williams

I think I stumped Mr. Google. For the life of me, I can’t pin down the name of the artist who wrote and/or sang my favorite country song of all time. Let me qualify that. That would be my favorite country song title, which is “I’m Gonna Build Me a Bar in the Back of My Car and Drive Myself to Drink” (I believe it came out circa ‘78, if that helps jog memory). At any rate, after watching Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart, I can visualize the film’s protagonist, “Bad” Blake (Jeff Bridges) as that songwriter. This guy is a country song-with a pocketful of whiskey and a lifetime full of heartache and regret.

Look in the dictionary under “has-been country musicians” and you’ll see an 8×10 of Bad Blake. Take a little whiff of the accompanying “scratch’n’sniff” card, and you’ll catch a pungent mélange of stale beer, cigarettes, musty nightclubs and cheap motel rooms.

Tooling around the Southwest in his antiquated, “lucky” Suburban, Blake’s life is a never-ending series of shithole one-nighters (in the film’s opening scene, his name gets second billing to a league tournament on a bowling alley sign, which reminded me of the visual gag from This is Spinal Tap with the amusement park marquee touting “Puppet show…and Spinal Tap”).

Keeping his road expenses to a minimum, he tours solo, using pickup bands to back him at each location. Eschewing rehearsals and sound checks, he spends his off hours brushing up on his ornithology (e.g. Wild Turkey, Old Crow and Eagle Rare). Somehow, he still manages to get through his performances. Oh, on occasion, the band has to vamp while he slips out to vomit in the alley-but that’s showbiz.

His love life is in similar disarray; it is a trail of broken hearts, one-night stands with groupies, an adult son whom he has not seen since infancy and a handful of exes (who may, or may not, live in Texas). His romance with the bottle is his longest-standing relationship.

Enter a small-town newspaper reporter named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a divorcee with a 4-year old son. A piano player who is backing Bad at one of his gigs asks Bad to grant her an interview as a favor. Preferring his fans to remember him as he was “back in the day”, the initially reluctant interviewee becomes much more enthusiastic once he meets the winsome young woman. Sparks fly, and the heat, as they say, is on.

Bad starts feeling much more enthusiastic about life in general; he surprises his long-suffering booking agent by agreeing to bury the hatchet with Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a former protégé who is now a country superstar, and open a stadium show for him. Things are looking up. But as anyone who has seen more than one film about an alcoholic knows, it’s about this point where you begin to brace for the fall (“How’s he going to fuck it up? Pass the popcorn”).

So, is this just another “narcissistic, self-destructive musician who has hit rock-bottom but just needs the love of a good woman to put him on the road to redemption” story? Well, yes. And no. Writer-director Cooper’s script (adapted from the original novel by Thomas Cobb) does travel down some dusty and well-worn country roads, but thankfully avoids some of the usual clichés before it takes us home. For instance, there are no barroom brawls, and nary even one scene shot in a trailer park (that was refreshing). Yes, we’ve seen this story before, but we don’t always get to see it with such a great cast.

There’s a lot of Oscar buzz about Bridges’ performance, although if truth be told I wouldn’t necessarily consider it the best thing he has ever done. But if anyone deserves a statuette for a consistently fine body of work, it would be Jeff Bridges. He’s got a good shot; if history has taught us anything, it’s that Oscar loves drunks (and nuns, according to Kate Winslet in a classic episode of Extras).

Robert Duvall has a small but memorable role; he and Bridges are a joy to watch together. Gyllenhaal is excellent, although her part feels a little underwritten. Bridges does his own singing, and he isn’t half-bad. Crazy Heart may be a small and simple film, but it has a big heart…like a good country song.

Of carnies and Calvary: Stigmata ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo in 2010)

Stigmata (aka Estigmas) is a film that is so visually intoxicating, striking in tone and steeped in atmosphere, that one is compelled to overlook (forgive?) its relatively thin narrative and decidedly glacial pacing. Based on the graphic novel by Lorenzo Mattotti and Claudio Piersanti, the film is directed by Adan Aliaga.

In his acting debut, champion Spanish shot-putter Manuel Martinez stars as the central character, Bruno, a classic “gentle giant” (replete with the requisite heart of gold) who wakes up one morning with mysterious, painless wounds in both hands, which proceed to bleed copiously and continuously. Naturally, this makes him an instant social pariah. He finds refuge with a carnival, where true love, tragedy and redemption transpire.

I assume much of the simmering angst and sublimated religious subtext will resonate more strongly with my Catholic brethren (although, as a Jew, I can sort of empathize). I was reminded of Fellini’s La Strada, with a few echoes of Lynch’s The Elephant Man as well. Pere Pueyo’s B & W cinematography is outstanding, and Aliaga is a talent to keep an eye on.

Blu-ray reissue: Paris, Texas ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 4, 2010)

Paris, Texas – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

What is it with European filmmakers and their obsession with the American West? Perhaps it’s all that wide open space, interpreted by the creative eye as a blank, limitless canvas. At any rate, director Wim Wenders and DP Robby Muller paint themselves a lovely desert Southwest landscape for this enigmatic, languidly paced 1984 melodrama (written by Sam Shepard and L.M. Kit Carson). With Shepard on board, you know that the protagonist is going to be a troubled, troubled man-and nothing says “rode hard and put up wet” like the careworn tributaries of Harry Dean Stanton’s weather-beaten face.

In his career-best performance,  Stanton portrays a man who has been missing for 4 years after abandoning his wife (Nastassja Kinski) and their young son. One day he reappears, with a tight-lipped countenance and a 1000-yard stare that tells you this guy is on a return trip from out where Jesus lost his shoes. Now it’s up to his brother (Dean Stockwell) to help him assemble the jigsaw. Stanton delivers an astonishing monologue in the film’s denouement that reminds us what a good actor does.

Criterion’s Blu-ray features a crystalline transfer, and the dynamic audio does Ry Cooder’s mournful slide guitar proud.

SIFF 2010: Bran Nue Dae **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 5, 2010)

I know what you’re thinking- “Enough, already with the Aboriginal musical-comedies!” I’m being facetious, of course; to the best of my knowledge, the Spell-check-challenged Australian import Bran Nue Dae is the first (and don’t go making up titles like Jimmy B: Bring on da Chant, Bring on da Axe in the comments section to try and fool me, either). So how does it fare? Well, it has all the sizzle of a potential audience-pleaser (especially when you consider the sizable number of sunny-side-up romps that have come out of Australia over the last decade or two), but unfortunately, the steak is a bit under-cooked.

Set in the late 1960s, the wafer-thin narrative offers up a sort of Aboriginal variation on Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows. In the sleepy little port town of Broome, a young Aboriginal named Willie (Rocky McKenzie) is conflicted between pleasing his religiously zealous mother (Ningali Lawford), who is pushing him toward the priesthood, and his raging teenage hormones, who are urging him that he needs to start investigating if his longtime friendship with the lovely Rosie (Jessica Mauboy) comes with a benefit package. Just when things start to get interesting between them, mom packs Willie off for another year at his Catholic school in distant Perth.

It’s not long, however, before Willie’s yearnings for Rosie, combined with the tyrannical rule of mean old Father Benedictus (an ultra-hammy Geoffrey Rush) overwhelm him, and he runs away. As Willie makes his way back to Broome, he has encounters with the requisite Whitman’s Road Movie Assortment of colorful goofballs, eventually hooking up with a young hippie couple (driving a VW bus, of course) and a hobo with a heart of gold (Ernie Dingo, stealing all of his scenes). Hilarity (and exuberant singing and dancing) ensues.

I really wanted to like this film (especially since I’ve always had a soft spot for stories centered on Aboriginal culture) but I’m not sure I can give it a hearty endorsement. There was a lot to like about it; particularly the easygoing charm of the young leads and Dingo’s engaging performance. I think the filmmaker’s hearts were in the right place…but…I was distracted by the sloppy editing (which tends to work against the choreography) and almost unforgivably bad lip-syncing for some of the numbers. While some of the songs were catchy, others were cringe-worthy. Then again, I’m not a huge fan of musicals; if you are a diehard, you might be more forgiving.