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Posts for April 2010

Ain't No Movie for the Weary Viewer: a review of 'Crazy Heart'

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By cdahlen · April 26, 2010

I finally got around to watching Crazy Heart, thanks to the film's recent DVD release.  I was prepared to see a great film.  I was NOT prepared to bawl my eyes out.  Yup, it was that 'heart'-wrenching.

Academy Award-winner Jeff Bridges is Bad Blake, a hardened country singer struggling with alcohol addiction.  While playing gigs at bowling alleys and rundown bars, Blake meets Jean Craddock, a Santa Fe journalist interested in interviewing the former country music star.  The single mother falls hard for Blake, and the two embark on a tumultuous, life-changing romance.  As Blake begins his relationship with Jean, he becomes inspired to write new musical material; enter the Academy Award-winning song "The Weary Kind," and a lucrative career deal for Blake.  Just as things start looking up for the down-and-out singer, he makes a mistake that forces him to face his demons, and make real changes in his life.

I've seen my share of movies about downtrodden, alcoholic has-beens, but nothing as moving as Crazy Heart.  The movie features a stellar cast, fantastic music, and universal story; everything about this film just works.

Though Jeff Bridges physically manifests the rough-and-tumble Blake (beer belly, greasy hair, gravelly voice), on a deeper level, Bridges earns our empathy by embodying Blake as a tragic figure longing for forgiveness.  It was the ideal role for Bridges, and the perfect timing for his long-awaited Oscar win.  Maggie Gyllenhaal complimented Bridges' bravado performance with her tender, emotive portrayal of Jean.  The two captured the complex chemistry between Blake and Jean, and made this unlikely relationship believable--a feat only achievable by talented, fearless actors.

If it weren't for the standout acting, the film's music might have been the star of the show.  The songs complimented the narrative action, and showcased the talents of producer T-Bone Burnett, singer/songwriter Ryan Bingham, and vocalist Jeff Bridges (who knew?!).  Country music haters, beware: you might like LOVE this soundtrack!

Though the story of Bad Blake focuses on the pitfalls of his fame, the character's challenge with alcoholism is a universal experience.  Anyone who has been touched by the tragedy of addiction can relate to the struggles of Blake and his loved ones.  The story provides some hope for those dealing with this devastating disease, but does not shy away from the consequences of lifelong addiction.  In this way, Crazy Heart features a unique, character-driven story, but also captures the larger, common struggles faced by much of the film's audience.  In short, it's an enthralling, emotionally-draining, 'crazy'-great film.

Review of Oscar-Winning Argentinian Film "The Secret in their Eyes"

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By cdahlen · April 18, 2010

When I made my predictions for the 2010 Academy Award winners, I assumed The White Ribbon would take the top prize for Foreign Language Film: it was directed by the renowned Michael Haneke, received tons of industry buzz, and won the Golden Globe Award in January.  Upon hearing Oscar presenter Pedro Almodóvar announce "...and the winner is El Secreto de sus Ojos--Argentina," I was taken aback.  For over a month I have wondered why in the heck this film won.  This past Saturday, I was finally able to see what all the Academy fuss was about.

El Secreto de sus Ojos [The Secret in their Eyes] is told from the perspective of Benjamín Espósito, a former federal justice agent in the midst of writing a novel based on his life.  The novel revolves around Espósito's mid-1970s investigation into the brutal rape and murder of a young newlywed woman in Buenos Aires.  Espósito returns to the judicial offices in the Argentinian capital after years of living away from the city; the cinematic story then unfolds in a series of flashbacks as the protagonist tries to unearth his memories about the investigation.  As the film uncovers information about the crime, it also reveals a unique bond between Espósito and his former department chief, Irene Menéndez-Hastings.  When the two former co-workers reconnect upon Espósito's present-day return to Buenos Aires, the pair not only learns more about the closed case, they also confront their feelings about each other.  In the end, Espósito realizes that the answers about the case and about Menéndez-Hastings have been with him all along, he just never saw things clearly until he returned to Buenos Aires.

I loved the themes and visual elements, but did not love the lengthy, predictable story.  Perhaps the filmmaker, Juan José Campanella, was trying to stay true to the novel La Pregunta de sus Ojos [The Question in their Eyes] by Eduardo Sacheri, but I felt like the cinematic tale, which ran over 2 hours, could have been better without many extraneous details.  That said, the methods used to show the story onscreen were spectacular.  The cinematographic framings constantly played with visual perspectives by shifting lens focus, capturing characters at odd angles, and using hand-held shots to represent "real-time" occurrences.  My favorite visual moment occurred when Espósito and his investigative partner Pablo Sandoval were on the hunt for the killer in a massive soccer stadium.  The long-duration shot begins with an aerial view of the stadium, moves in across the field, and finally zooms-in on Espósito's face in the midst of drunken, screaming fans.  The shot continues as Espósito and Sandoval move through the crowd, and begin to chase their suspect.  After some high-energy hand-held chase sequenses, the camera finally ends up on eye-level with the killer as he surrenders on the soccer field.  Besides being the most memorable shot of the film because of its length and complexity, the effect of the shot reinforces the film's themes of interrogating one's memory and vision.  Though the camera literally followed a line of action from beginning to end, did it capture the truth behind the actions?  Was it an accurate representation of the events, or was it a rendering of the occurrences from Espósito's memory?  We never find out.  We must trust our instincts--what's behind our eyes.

This visual trust parallels the story's deeper theme.  Throughout the film, characters find themselves confronted with the truth about their lives, but choose not to act on what they see.  Only upon further contemplation can characters come to terms with their "truth."  Sandoval sums up this theme in a statement about the accused killer, "A guy can change anything. His face, his home, his family, his girlfriend, his religion, his God. But there's one thing he can't change. He can't change his passion."  All of the primary characters in the film have a passion, but it takes the length of the film for each of them (and for us) to fully realize it.  Through some clever motifs, the director pinpoints the characters' underlying passions, and forces us to see our own truths in an alternate way.

The film's weakness was its plot.  I kept wishing for greater complexity and a faster-paced narrative, but ended up disappointed.  The investigation was predictable, the novel-writing seemed unimportant and unnecessary, and the relationship trajectory of Espósito and Menéndez-Hastings was underdeveloped.  While I loved the themes, and empathized with the characters, I was underwhelmed with the plot methods used to deliver the moral messages of the film.

The Academy recognized a solid film this year: it has a universal message, features compelling characters, and resonates with viewers.  However, Oscar voters erred too much on the side of caution.  The story didn't do enough to thwart viewer expectations.  The plot felt tired about 2/3 of the way in, and by the time the major climactic twist happened, I was already over it.  El Secreto de sus Ojos has all the makings of an Oscar-winning Foreign Language film (grand themes, lush visuals, bold acting), but that doesn't mean it should have won the award.  I'll take ambiguous, challenging plot lines any day over the conventional cinematic strategies used in this film.  That said, I thought the feature was well-made and deserving of attention, and I'm happy to have finally seen it on the big screen.

Review of "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"

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By cdahlen · April 7, 2010

 

My past two weeks have been consumed with Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: I read the book in 5 days, saw the film over the weekend, and have continued thinking about the riveting story ever since.  Between the haunting Nordic setting, enigmatic characters, and unforgettable plot twists, this story has me hooked!

The film centers around weathered journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) and goth hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) as they research the 1966 disappearance of Harriet Vanger--a member of one of most powerful families in Sweden.  Though the Vanger case remained a mystery for over 40 years, Blomkvist and Salander uncover new clues which lead them down a dangerous path.

Not only was this a suspenseful, engaging film, it was one of the best book-to-movie adaptations I have seen in a while.  After the first five minutes, I forgot about the Swedish subtitles and immersed myself into the investigative thriller.  The film not only stays true to the story, it enhances the spectator experience by delineating complex details from the novel (i.e. the filmmakers simplify the perplexing Vanger family tree through photographs and montage sequences).  I was also impressed with the acting--especially from Rapace in the title role.  The only aspect of the movie I did not appreciate was the inclusion of references to the second novel.  I have yet to read The Girl Who Played With Fire, yet I feel like I know the basic foundation of Lisbeth's story from the teasers in this film.  I suppose the filmmakers felt the need to hook viewers into the trilogy, but I wish they would have dispensed with the spoilers.

Definitely see the film, but read the novel first!

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