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Thirty years after playing a small Texas town’s dim, handsome jock in Peter Bogdanavich’s The Last Picture Show, Jeff Bridges returns to the parched Southwest in Crazy Heart, with what could be his breakthrough character gone to flesh and seed.
Bridges plays Bad Blake, an alcoholic over-the-hill country singer (Is there any other kind?) Bad’s boozy fall from grace lands him in a series of desert honky tonks for a string of desperate, sparsely attended shows played through a sweat and puke-stained shirt. Sparks somewhat unconvincingly fly when fledgling journalist Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) stops by one show to interview the fallen star, and inspires his gradual, painful redemption.
Crazy Heart’s stubborn resistance to a plot-propelling conflict is an odd thing to see in a movie otherwise rife with clichés.
Not every plotline can or should reinvent the wheel. And Crazy Heart has its moments. Its early live performance scenes endear us to and make us feel embarrassed for Bad. (You look on as the shows teeter on the verge of drunken disaster with the same wince Bad gives his lonely, weathered one night stands on those hungover mornings after.) These scenes also hint at some insight into the music industry. When Jean asks Bad if he “ever gets tired of playing” his signature big hit, I realized how tedious life on the road must get. I also wondered how the film’s composer, T. Bone Burnett, went about creating a soundtrack he knew going in would have to contain both crowd-pleasing hits and relative duds.
But Crazy Heart doesn’t dig deep enough. Musical interludes and discussions of the country genre (grizzled old vets of the “real” country versus the mass-produced poster boys—here embodied by an uncredited Colin Farrell’s Tommy Sweet—fronting the “glossy” modern country) are relegated to the sidelines. And don’t expect any revelations about journalism. For all we know, Maggie took it up as a hobby to avoid the extracurricular drudgery of crocheting.
What could have been and almost is a unique look at a craft like music or writing gives way to a trite, oddly listless romantic and family drama. Jean was burned in the past, so she’s weary of Bad. Bad adores Buddy, Jean’s son possibly more than Jean (shades of Jerry Maguire). Naturally this is because Bad is estranged from his own boy, with Buddy being the second in a line of surrogates after Tommy.
Then Bad’s struggle with the hooch kicks into high gear and Crazy Heart abruptly turns into Leaving Las Nashville. After Bad pukes into one too many motel room wastebaskets and loses Buddy as he gets plastered in a shopping mall bar, Jean rejects him and sends him straight into the arms of his buddy Wayne Kramer (the great Robert Duvall, also a producer, in a sinfully underwritten, boring and extraneous role).
There isn’t a bad performance across the board; even the faded floozies with caked on makeup who rub up against Bad have their charms. But aside from Bridges, no one’s acting or, more troublingly, character is memorable. Crazy Heart’s characters, like its loose strands of a plot (part concert movie, part alcoholic nightmare, part romance, part horror movie about aging) never cohere.
Crazy Heart plays like one of the commercial country hits Bad deplores, hinting at misery, but through a glossy veneer, with redemption never in doubt, just off the next exit on the lonely desert highway.
“Beauty must suffer.” So says The Doctor (Rainer Bock) in a small German town in Michael Haneke’s latest, The White Ribbon. The line could apply to the characters living in the bucolic village in 1915 as it hurtles toward World War I, the modernity that war unleashed and the fascism it provoked in Germany.
At least that’s what Haneke, or his narrator (Ernst Jacobi), tells us at the start of the film. The voiceover technique is often derided as intrusive and heavy-handed. It’s especially conspicuous in a work by this sometimes stubbornly oblique director. This narrator warns us of the odd tragedies that will befall the village and reflects on the light they shed “some of the things that would go on to happen in this country.”
A narrator is a useful technique here, because despite the film’s early telegraph of incipient horror, The White Ribbon is Haneke’s most restrained and sedate work. At times, the pacing is almost too glacial, the whole film too stately and clinical. (Christian Berger’s starkly gorgeous cinematography recalls a B&W Days of Heaven and jolts you just as you may start to nod off.)
But if you think about the earlier entries on the Austrian’s resume, you’ll realize that a Haneke movie usually winds up being compelling despite taking its sweet time to convince you that all its underlying unpleasantness is worth it.
In this case, the bad news starts when the doctor takes a nasty spill off his horse. This being a Haneke movie, the fall was no accident, but caused by a wire strung between two trees. Other bad omens: The Baron’s son, Sigi (Fion Mutert) is hanged naked and upside-down in the woods, the barn burns down and a peasant mother is killed in the mill.
Aside from the doctor’s incident, we don’t see any of these events take place. Haneke is only interested in the aftermath. Some villagers swear vengeance and some seek escape from the increasingly “cruel, miserable” village. But everyone suspects. And it’s strongly implied (we could never expect this director to spell everything out) that the community youths are behind it all.
A note on the children: they are strikingly beautiful. (And the child actors, like the entire cast, are flawless.) Despite some early comparisons to Village of the Damned, their wickedness is not painted in broad strokes. “Looking back, I always thought it was strange how Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragus) and her friends walked to the edge of the woods after school instead of running home with the rest of us," says the narrator. That’s about as damning as it gets. At least until the very end when The Teacher (Christian Friedel) shares his suspicions. (The Teacher’s courtship of Eva, the metaphorically named young nanny played by the Leonie Benesch in a standout performance, provides the most comic relief I’ve ever seen in a Haneke flick.)
Haneke rests the blame for the children’s indiscretions, no matter how savage (they torture and nearly blind a retarded child), on their parents. “Our sin punishes our parents’ sin, and their parents’ sin to the third and fourth generations,” the perpetrators write in one note.
Original sin is a very Christian idea. But Haneke indicts religion’s rigid single-mindedness and hypocrisy in the character of the Pastor (Burghart Klausner), an abusive brute who straps his adolescent son to his mattress to keep him from masturbating and then dismisses warnings that his daughter is, we’re led to believe, the ringleader of the town miscreants.
Then there’s The White Ribbon’s greatest, most squirm-inducing scene, in which the Doctor (who for a while looked like the only character over 18 devoid of sinister intentions) breaks things off with his girlfriend, criticizing her as “plain, ugly and reeking of bad breath.” She grimaces and tells him he “must be very unhappy to be so mean.” And then she asks how he could desert her after she’d caught him fingering his daughter and told no one; it’s classic Haneke—a bomb disrupting the kind of silence where you could have heard a pin drop.
That said, what Haneke leaves offscreen is always more disturbing than what he shows. And as in Benny’s Video, Funny Games and Cache, it’s the misdeeds of children that get lodged in the viewer’s skull. And it’s the teenagers in The White Ribbon who would become the disenfranchised young adults most susceptible to Hitler’s spell 15 years later.
In his narration that closes the film, The Teacher says that in the spring of 1916, the German army drafted him to fight in the First World War. But for the people living in The White Ribbon’s pastoral Eden, the battle was already lost.
Perhaps to atone for the enduring myth of the “casting couch,” Hollywood often returns to the theme of young people being corrupted by conniving elders. From Hitchcock’s damsels in distress to Rosemary’s Baby to Taxi Driver and Mulholland Drive, a long history of movies suggests that youth isn’t wasted on the young, but snatched out from under them.
Raymond Warner Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends is an unorthodox entry in the genre by dint of its gay characters and unwavering cynicism. Fassbinder never really graduated from being the enfant terrible of German cinema (he overdosed at 37, having already directed 40 feature length films). So it’s unsurprising that this story of Fox, a working-class circus performer (played by Fassbinder) picked up, taken in and swindled by a group of “prissy, posh” sophisticates is bleak through to the end.
The most intriguing thing about Fox and Friends is its peripheral treatment of homosexuality. It’s a testament to Fassbinder that his 1974 movie outpaces many being made in today’s professedly liberal and liberated Hollywood. It’s a “gay movie” that is neither PSA nor a minstrel show. The film is largely confined to places where its characters could live quietly and without tension—gay bars and boutiques, cruising areas and their own apartments. But even casual acquaintances and family members don’t bat an eye.
Fassbinder was a libertine, but any salaciousness in Fox and Friends is muted by the film’s classical composition. There is no fancy camerawork, jumbled chronology or postmodern trickery to distract from the barebones plot. But the static medium shots frame unusual activities, like naked bathhouse patrons and businessmen tentatively picking up hustlers in public bathrooms. Fassbinder’s measured technique is more effective at establishing this subculture than showy frenetic devices could be. It lets these people and places, and not the cinematographer, expose themselves.
Besides, Fassbinder hasn’t made gay underworld expose, but an indictment of money and its ruinous effects on individuals and their relationships. Eugen tries to cultivate Fox, but it’s a selfish effort. He teaches him how to order off of a French menu, which wine goes with which course and what clothes to wear. But he imparts all of this wisdom to spare himself any embarrassment. The irony is that Fox funds all of Eugen’s sophistication with his rapidly dwindling lotto winnings.
Eventually, Eugen and his family dupe Fox into saving their bankrupt business. It’s a damning critique of the capitalist system—a somewhat dim prole who falls into chance money keeping an industrialist family’s fortune afloat. But the confidence trick has an even more cynical take on the power dynamic that, no matter how buried, is inherent to all relationships: each partner provides something the other needs. It’s refreshing to see the naïve, young buck end up the (accidental) breadwinner and not just a hood ornament. But Fox, needy, clueless and attracted to Eugen’s classy façade, still draws the short end of the stick.
Fox and His Friends is a very German movie. The distrust of capitalism is grounded in the personal. But the movie’s quiet efficiency tempers plot developments (and some fantastically kitschy settings) that would otherwise veer toward melodrama. There’s also a sense of somewhat wearily looking beyond national borders for enlightenment (whether through posh French restaurants, American johns or an ill-fated trip to Marrakech), only to stay bound by the same old personal and cultural handicaps.
Jenny (Carry Mulligan) is another babe in the woods battling social constrictions in An Education. Unlike Fox, Jenny’s got the brains to match her effortless charm. She also benefits from her supportive if overbearing mom and dad (Alfred Molina, ranging from funny to stern without becoming a movie dad cliché) to steer her in the right direction (which in this case leads straight to Oxford). But she still falls for a duplicitous would-be mentor, David (Peter Sarsgaard), whose displays of fleeting glamour nearly derail Jenny’s straight march to self-made success.
Jenny is the most promising student at her starchy girls prep school. She’s one of those students whose middle-class parents did not enroll her in private school for etiquette lessons, but to see her study through the night and unlock the Pandora’s Box of potential that admission to elite universities suggests to this day.
Life hasn’t hardened Jenny yet. Naiveté is the only chink her in her cardigan-heavy armor. (An Education pours her endearing cluelessness on a bit thick.) She dreams of a life in Paris where she’ll “eat in good restaurants, smoke lots of cigarettes and watch great films.” David spots her and her giant cello seeking shelter from a downpour and drives her to her modest two-family home. He drops the names of some jazz greats and smokes a cigarette (she turns one down for fear of her parents smelling the residue). She is smitten.
After charming Jenny’s parents (they’re biggest objection is not his age—a dozen years older than Jenny—but his Jewishness) with wit and cultural references, David takes her out on the town for a…chamber music concert. She meets Danny (Dominick Cooper), a dapper friend of David’s, and his affable ditz of a girlfriend, Helen (Rosamund Pike, who like Cooper is engaging and underused). After nodding off at the recital, the crew heads to a smoky jazz club. Jenny’s downfall is underway.
As the relationship progresses and Jenny’s grades freefall, David grows sinister and Jenny reluctant. Sarsgaard nails David’s seductiveness, but is a bit one-note. That’s due more to the character’s limitations than the actor’s. David is a small-time crook with some shady real estate dealings (he basically moves black people into white neighborhoods, a subplot that mirrors the movie’s commentary on Britain’s stubborn class divisions). But, unlike Eugen fleecing Fox, his motives for wooing Cassie remain vague.
Mulligan nails it, alternating between levelheaded intelligence, vulnerability and suspicion as David’s well-crafted front begins to crumble. In the wake of her suitor’s betrayal and the opportunities it endangers, she avoids the easy histrionics that lesser actors might employ in favor of quietly picking up the pieces.
It’s a good thing that Jenny’s alternative “education” took place before Swinging London kicked into psychedelic full gear. Otherwise she might have been lost for good. The setting in 1964 also mercifully confines Jenny’s struggles to her character (mostly) instead of mooring them to the decade’s burgeoning feminist movement. She is able to handle her problems on her own, without the sort of social pedagogy movies always make shrill or reductive.
As An Education concludes, Jenny grasps the implications of her tumultuous year, saying she “feel[s] old. But not very wise.” Fox and His Friends and An Education are two sturdy entries in a canon of movies that provide that wisdom.
Is a movie a success if you’re still thinking about it days after viewing? This was the case with Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers and Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, two entries in the New York Film Festival that I very nearly walked out on, whose endings could not arrive soon enough, that made me question the credibility, if not sanity, of the selection committee. But the imagery in both was indelible. These are flawed, irritating provocations. And both are worthwhile.
A few months after releasing Che, his four-and-a-half hour Che Guevera biopic, Steven Soderbergh returns with The Girlfriend Experience, a 77-minute long take on five days in the life of Chelsea (porn star Sasha Grey), a high-end Manhattan escort. The director is fond of mixing it up; his resume includes big-budget blockbusters (the Ocean's series), Oscar-baiting star vehicles (Erin Brockovich) and indie fare (The Limey, Full Frontal, Bubble).
As Soderbergh said at a Tribeca Film Festival panel following his latest, "movies need to have either absolute perspective or none at all." He called The Girlfriend Experience "a myopic movie" about a very narrow breed of New Yorkers doing very specific things in October of 2008. And while The Girlfriend Experience represents a downsizing of budget, scope and star power for the director, his ambition is undiminished.
The movie's pinpoint topicality comes not only from its protagonist's resemblance to a certain governor-toppling working girl, but from its production coinciding with last fall's Wall Street meltdown. Pillow talk between Chelsea and her clients revolves around crumbling portfolios, bailouts and cautious investment strategies.
But fiscal panic hasn't hurt her client's willingness to shell out. Dates occur in swank downtown lounges and hotels, the camera lingering on their facades in establishing shots. Chelsea name drops designers and upscale restaurants, Patrick Bateman-style. "I met with Philip on October 5th and 6th. I wore a Michael Kors dress and shoes with La Perla lingerie underneath and diamond stud earrings."
Grey's deadpan delivery is coolly appealing. "During lunch he talked about the financial crisis. And when we got back to the room, he immediately got on the phone and ordered some Macallan 25. I put on a Kiki de Montparnasse corset, panties and gloves. After he got off the phone, we made out for awhile," Chelsea's voiceover narration tells us as she commits a tryst to paper. (A businessman suggests she write a memoir: "There's a huge market out there for that these days.")
Soderbergh called The Girlfriend Experience "a movie about transactions," with the film's Great Recession backdrop exposing their fragility. Chelsea sleeps with "the hobbyist", an escort connoisseur, in hopes of a favorable, profit-boosting review on his website. Her real boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), is a personal trainer often seen haggling with clients looking for their own form of physical wish-fulfillment. Everything and everyone is for sale. "If they wanted you to be yourself, they wouldn't be paying you," Chelsea explains to a journalist (in a whole different sort of transaction).
The hobbyist criticizes Chelsea for her "flat affect." But Grey's dry monotone and vacant stare only strengthen the actor's performance; they bring the character's odd girlish giggle and flash of life behind the eyes into sharp relief. Soderbergh praised Grey for the "Zen" she brought to Chelsea. (He knew a porn star "in command of sexual situations" would fit the part.) But it's the almost-reluctant emotions that manage to break through Chelsea's cool façade (all of them outside of the bedroom) that keep you watching.
Domestic scenes between Chelsea and Chris are bathed in warm amber hues, but offer no more emotional warmth than the many hotel flings, here tinted a clinical blue. The pair's selfish indifference to one another suggests that the emotional toll of "the real thing" is just as taxing as paid simulations and truncated "experiences."
Character anomie aside, The Girlfriend Experience is too funny to be cynical and too broad an indictment of consumer culture to be a didactic slam on the world's oldest profession. For Soderbergh, prostitution is no different than investment banking, which is no different than filmmaking. (Moderator Caryn James asked Soderbergh if he felt he'd prostituted himself with the Ocean's movies; he diffused the awkwardness by saying all of his movies required him to sell his time and ideas to executives.)
The Girlfriend Experience might not rake it in like Soderbergh's mainstream efforts. But the hordes who queued up for the three Tribeca screenings indicate a collective interest in the gilded underbelly of Wall Street's good old days, when, as the director said "money became a national fetish."
Porn is another national pastime (Soderbergh noted that Utah has the highest porn traffic rate in America) and Grey's stature in that industry will likely draw many one-handed keyboard tappers to the arthouse.
Will they be disappointed with the lack of onscreen sex in the movie? "I excel at undercutting expectations," Soderbergh shrugged. He hoped that people desensitized by Grey's graphic pornography would be jolted by the inverse, saying that "fantasy is what you can't have."
With money dried up and the elicit thrill of sex dimmed by accessibility, the confluence of the two in The Girlfriend Experience make it the ultimate post-crash fantasy.