Movie Reviews - 2009 postsTuesday October 19, 2010
Review: John Rabe (2009)
After nearly 75 years of ignoring the topic, two films about the Rape of Nanjing, one Chinese and one German, were released in 2009. Both suffer the same melodramatic impulse. It’s not enough to show atrocity, we have to show uplift. The music has to well. Good people have to march onward even as what they leave behind is so unspeakable as to shatter faith in God.
The Chinese film, “Nanjing! Nanjing!,” is reviewed here.
The German film, “John Rabe,” focuses, no surprise, on the German, John Rabe (Ulrich Tukur of “Seraphine”), a member of the National Socialist Party (NaSi or Nazi), who, at the start, has spent years in Nanjing building a dam for the German company Siemens. It’s his pride and joy.
But it’s December 1937. The Japanese have attacked China and are approaching Nanjing (literally: southern capital), and anyway Rabe’s been recalled by Siemens to Germany. He and his wife are to leave in two days.
Rabe is not exactly a warm figure here. He calls the Chinese “good for nothing” and “children,” he has made no effort to learn their language, and he assumes he’s safe from the Japanese. “After all, they are allies of the Reich,” he says. When Japanese Zeros begin to bomb his compound, he unfurls a large Nazi flag and has everyone hide beneath it. That night he writes in his diary: “The Japanese are indeed good allies. They hold their fire as soon as they see the flag. Very honorable.”
This is one of my favorite parts of the movie. It’s so easy, in historical dramas, to make protagonists more cognizant of future events than their peers, and most filmmakers can’t resist the impulse (see: Michael Corleone in “Godfather Part II”), so it’s nice when they do. The present’s messy and uncertain. We know we’re watching a movie about an unimaginable holocaust, but unimaginable holocausts are unimaginable. No one thinks they’ll live through one today, tomorrow, or next week.
Unfortunately, we begin to get intimations of something warmer about Rabe. He’s certainly a nicer man than the Siemens exec, Werner Fleiss (Mathias Herrmann), who’s been sent to replace him. Fleiss berates Rabe for allowing a portrait of Hitler to be covered up, and for not flying his huge Nazi flag—literally and figuratively. Then he lowers the boom. He’s not just replacing Rabe: Siemens is shutting down the project. All Rabe’s hard work—gone. “The dam,” Rabe tells his wife, “would’ve been my legacy.”
To which we think: Ah, but he’ll have a different legacy.
In a stiff ceremony, Rabe receives an award as “a hero to the Chinese people,” which is greeted with catcalls from a drunk American, Dr. Wilson (Steve Buscemi), who thinks little of the Nazi businessman. He mocks him. “Hero to the Chinese people,” he says sarcastically.
To which we think: Ah, but soon he WILL be a hero to the Chinese people.
As the Japanese move into Nanjing, an international contingent, including Valérie Dupres (Anne Consigny of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), a woman with whom Rabe has a subtle flirtation, attempts to establish a “Safety Zone” for both themselves and their Chinese workers. Against Rabe’s wishes, he’s made its president. The music wells up heroically. A day later, Rabe attempts to flee. At least that’s what the others fear, since they see his name and the name of his wife on the passenger list of the last ship leaving Nanjing. They rush down to the dock. There’s tension. Then they see him and his wife making their way through the crowd. It’s true! He’s leaving!
Except there is no tension. We know he’s not leaving. Otherwise we wouldn’t be watching the movie we’re watching.
His wife gets on the ship, yes, but he stays behind, absurdly holding a bird cage, and standing on the top step of the elevated stairs as the ship pulls away. A moment later, Japanese Zeros strafe the ship. He screams her name. For some reason, in this crowded port, no one is near him. He’s all alone watching this attack. Because they couldn’t afford extras? Because it suggests how alone he is now? It’s China, kids. No one is ever alone.
First he loses his legacy, then he loses his wife. This is a big moment in the film. How does he pick himself up? We don’t know. He just does. You could argue he’s on a suicide mission. Medical supplies, including insulin, are low or nonexistent in the Safety Zone, but he tells no one he has diabetes. He simply channels his German efficiency into helping the Chinese rather than Siemens. Instead of building a system to hold back water, he’s building a system to hold back the Japanese.
The horrors get worse. Executions of Chinese men are rampant. Chinese girls cut their hair to seem like boys to prevent rape. Nanjing 1937 is, in fact, one of the true horrors of he modern age, and we should get a sense of these few foreigners propping up the last bit of sane ground in an insane world. But we don’t. Instead we get subplots. Rabe and Wilson bond over drink. Dupres confesses to Rabe she’s housing a whole platoon of Chinese soldiers in a secret room. Rabe and Wilson and Dr. Georg Rosen (Daniel Bruhl of “Inglourious Basterds”) argue over protocol. There are even intimations of romance between Rosen and a Chinese girl. He leaves her a dress. She puts it on. They talk on a couch. Seriously? We need a love story? Are we that pathetic?
There’s one great scene. While Rabe and the others are hat-in-hand at the Japanese embassy, Rabe’s driver, Chang (Ming Li), walking around his car and smoking, is confronted by an angry Japanese guard, who demands, in Japanese, that he stay in his car. But Chang doesn’t speak Japanese. When Rabe leaves the compound, Chang is nowhere to be seen. He searches for him, yells his name, finds him in a fenced-in area with other Chinese who are in the process of being decapitated. It’s a contest sponsored by a Japanese newspaper: What honorable Japanese soldier can decapitate the most Chinese? Rabe tries to get them to stop, to rescue his driver, but Chang is decapitated before his eyes. A Japanese official later says the driver wasn’t following the rules. “He didn’t stay in the car?” Rabe answers. “His head was cut off!” To compensate him for his loss, Rabe is allowed to choose 20 Chinese to take with him, but this is a Faustian bargain. He has to decide who lives and dies. He does it with German efficiency and something like horror in his eyes.
This scene is a rarity, though. Too often, writer/director Florian Gallenberger gives over to melodrama. Near the end, the Japanese want to clear out the Safety Zone and remove evidence of their atrocities before an international contingent arrives, but Rabe and the others stand in the way; they stand in front of more Chinese who are about to be killed. The Japanese begin to go through with the executions anyway: “Ready... aim...” Then the deus ex machina: the sound of the ship arriving with the international contingency. Rabe wins but the movie loses. God, ex machina or otherwise, should not show up here.
The ending is even worse. Rabe is forced to step down as president of the Safety Zone and return to Germany, and, as he makes his way through a throng of grateful Chinese, they chant his name and shout good-bye: “Tzi jien! Tzi jien!” At the other side of this throng, just outside Nanjing, a walled city, stands his wife, still alive, and he rushes to greet her, and they embrace, and a cheer goes up from the Chinese throng. Yay! The German guy is back with his wife! Yay! We’re all about to die! Yay!
How much more effective, how truer, if, after all the good he’d done, he’d left unceremoniously, as alone as he’d been at the port. What group of people recognizes individual good as it’s being done? Don’t we need historians to piece things together? Hell, I’m even cynical about that proposition.
And cheering him? Wouldn’t the remaining Chinese have clawed at him to get him to stay? Or to take them along? Or to take their babies with him so they wouldn’t be skewered by the Japanese?
Instead the Chinese act as audience for this German couple in a story that is about the atrocities that happened to them.
The Rape of Nanjing is a horrific story worth telling. We just keep telling it wrong.
Review: “Harry Brown” (2009)
WARNING: MAKE-MY-DAY SPOILERS
Is “Harry Brown” screwing with us?
The movie came to the States last spring, a Brit “Gran Torino,” another “Death Wish” about men near death. Since there were rave reviews, since it garnered a 66% on Rotten Tomatoes, I thought it might be more character study than vigilante film, but it’s not. No one’s a character here. Everyone’s a type. Count them off:
- The vigilante
- The friend who dies
- The ineffectual, sympathetic cop
- The ineffectual, grandstanding police captain
- Those horrible hoodlums
Screenwriter Gary Young and director Daniel Barber simply move these pieces against various backdrops and let them play out. There’s patience in the pacing, some shots are effective, I liked a few lines, but don’t fool yourself into thinking this is more than a genre film.
Which is why the dialogue at the end comes as a bit of a shock.
It’s in the middle of the grand finale. Because hoodlums rather than single moms or pensioners are now being killed in this particular low-end estate (read: projects), the grandstanding police captain, S.I. Childs (Iain Glen), ignoring the preposterous theory from sympathetic but ineffectual D.I. Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer) that the hoodlums are being killed by a pensioner named Harry Brown (Michael Caine), whose best friend, Len (David Bradley) was killed by the same hoodlums a week earlier, decides to storm the estate in grand, militaristic fashion. It sets off a conflagration. The hoodlums, numbering in the single digits for the first three-quarters of the film, swell to dozens, and beat back the cops with Molotov cocktails. Destruction is rampant. The streets are on fire.
Into this chaos arrive Frampton and her ineffectual but unsympathetic partner D.S. Terry Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles). Attacked, left bleeding and injured, Frampton opens her eyes and through the haze sees...could it be?... Harry Brown running towards her. In his 70s (Caine was 76 when the movie was released), with emphysema, and recently self-released from the hospital from a gunshot wound, he somehow carries both cops into the local pub, run by the sympathetic Sid (Liam Cunningham), who, we later find out, is not-so-sympathetic. He’s the uncle of Noel (Ben Drew), one of the main gangbangers, and a nasty piece of work himself. Before the evening is out, he’ll betray Harry and viciously beat him. But he’ll get his.
Before that betrayal, though, Frampton and Harry have a conversation.
Harry is a former, much-decorated Marine, who was once stationed in northern Ireland, and Frampton, despite the chaos surrounding them, pleads in her usual ineffectual way for him to stop taking the law into his own hands:
Frampton: It’s not northern Ireland, Harry.
Harry: No, it’s not. Those people were fighting for something. For a cause. To them out there, this is just entertainment.
He means the gangbangers. But there’s no way the filmmakers didn’t hear the echo: how it could apply, even more so, to us out here, the audience, watching these horrors for fun. In the middle of a genre film, it’s an indictment of the entire genre. It’s the hero of the story telling the audience they’re like the villains.
Caine, by the way, is as good as ever. There’s fear in his hooded eyes but also steadiness in his voice and hands. I wouldn’t pay to watch him read the phone book, as the old saying goes (even as phone books have gone), but I’d pay to watch him in a “My Dinner with Andre” type film: Caine, and another man, or woman, shooting the honest shit. Which is to say: I would’ve liked more of the pub conversations between Harry and Len. But they only gave them so much to say. The pieces needed to be moved about.
One camera shot stands out for me. After being informed that Len has been killed by the gangbangers, we cut to a funeral procession of many, many cars. The camera follows the cars for a bit, then allows them to continue on as it alights on Harry and a young priest before an open grave. That funeral procession was for someone else. Len, an old man, just has the one friend and a priest too young to know.
One line of dialogue stands out for me. Harry’s already killed one gangbanger, stabbing him, and now he’s after guns, which are hard to get in England. So he goes to the source, the gangbangers, specifically a house run by the perpetually high Kenny (Joseph Gilgun) and the spooky Stretch (Sean Harris), whose lean body is a cross hatch of scars and tats interrupted by nipple rings. The two take Harry through several hellish rooms, including a greenhouse of, one assumes, pot, and into the back room, where a video plays of Stretch screwing a strung-out girl. That girl is still strung-out on the couch—she seems barely alive—and when Stretch tries to entice Harry with the worst of his culture by offering the girl, Harry tries to entice Stretch with the best of his culture by suggesting they call an ambulance. But there’s no cultural exchange. Stretch gets pissed off by the mere suggestion of a kind act. So when Harry gets the guns he shoots Kenny and then chases Stretch back through the greenhouse, where he lays, with a gut wound, helpless. Earlier, Stretch had Harry in his sites; but he’d also been using his gun as a bong and it misfired, and now Harry has him. Calmly, almost sympathetically, Harry says, “You failed to maintain your weapon, son.”
I love that “son.” So much better than Eastwood’s clenched-teeth “punk.” I love the old-fashion lesson inherent in the line, too. Be ready. Use a thing for what it’s for. Maintain it.
But that’s mostly what I liked about “Harry Brown.” The rest is stupid—and gets stupider in order to maintain the tropes of the vigilante film.
Mortimer is useless. She was cast to be useless. Why else cast Emily Mortimer as a cop? She spends half the movie, mouth agape, unable to argue back against the idiocies of her captain or partner.
The captain is useless. He has a desultory scene just to show how he, and the system, are screwing up. To justify Harry’s actions.
The hoodlums are cackling idiots without a trace of the better angels of our nature. We want them shot. We get our wish. The movie shows us our fears and, one by one, eliminates them.
To do this, Harry almost becomes supernatural. One gangmember, Marky (Jack O’Connell), suddenly finds himself hooded and tied to a chair. How did Harry get him there? Marky then gives up video evidence of Len’s murder. Why doesn’t Harry take it to the police? Instead, Marky, feet and hands bound, but on a short leash (literally), is let loose 10 feet into the graffitied subway where the gangbangers hang out, and where two of the leaders are sloppily making out with young girls. They see Marky but don’t see who’s holding the leash. He’s still in the dark. They pull out their guns. Why doesn’t Harry shoot them first? Why does he toy with them?
To them out there, this is just entertainment.
“See the way we're lit? This is a hellish environment, son. 'ellish.”
Review: “The White Ribbon” (2009)
WARNING: ARE THERE SPOILERS IN A MICHAEL HANEKE FILM?
I should’ve known.
I saw the trailer with its exquisite black-and-white photography, beautiful, rising choir music, and the faces of serious children saying, in German, “Forgive us, father,” “Please forgive us,” all of it interspersed with Palme D’or awards and quotes from critics (“It feels like a classic even as you’re watching it for the first time.” — Scott Foundas, LA WEEKLY), and I thought: “I gotta see this.”
Last Friday I finally got the chance. Five minutes in, I realized, “Oh, wait. This is a Michael Haneke film, isn’t it? Fuck.”
The choir music may rise, in other words, but nothing is uplifting.
Haneke’s films (“Cache,” “La pianiste,” “Le temps du loup,” “Funny Games”) don’t really educate so much as remind. They remind us of two things in particular: “People are brutal” and “You don’t know why.”
Those who agree with that first sentiment often make exceptions. They’ll say, “Well, people may be brutal but children aren’t.” They’ll say, “People are brutal now, but in the past, in a simpler time, we were better.”
To which Haneke replies, “Let them come to ‘Das weisse Bande: Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte’” (“The White Ribbon: A German children’s story”).
The film is set in a German village in the year before the Great War. The villagers are known by their occupations (The Farmer) or their relationship to someone with that occupation (The Farmer’s Wife). Only the children have names.
It’s basically a crime mystery in which we guess the criminals at the outset, have that guess strengthened throughout, then leave the theater without an answer. It’s wholly atmospheric, and the atmosphere is one of dread barely held in check. It’s one of tight-assed propriety masking something monstrous.
Our narrator is the School Teacher, voiced as an old man (Ernst Jacobi) but viewed as a young one (Christian Friedel). “It all began, I think,” he says, “with the Doctor’s accident.” He’s still using the language of the village, since the “accident” occurs when the Doctor (Rainer Bock), returning from an afternoon horseride, is cut down by a wire strung across the gate at knee length. The horse is killed, the Doctor goes to the hospital, the wire goes missing.
Village life centers around the Baron (Ulrich Tukur), who owns more than 50 percent of the land and for whom many in the village work, but our village centers around the Pastor (Burghart Klaubner) and his family, particularly his children, particularly the eldest two: Klara (Maria-Victoria Dragas), an upright, handsome girl, with something like defiance in her seemingly respectful stance, and Martin (Leonard Proxauf), a striking boy with bags under his eyes and something like shame oozing from every pore. We first see them together the evening of the doctor’s accident when they face their father’s quiet wrath for being late for dinner. They ask for forgiveness, as in the trailer, and don’t get it. “I don’t know what’s worse: your absence or your coming back,” the Pastor says. He passes sentence—10 strokes of the cane the next evening—and they are made complicit in their punishment. “Do you agree?” the Pastor says. When the punishment comes, the boy is made to get the cane and the whipping occurs behind closed doors. This is a village where things occur behind closed doors.
As the summer progresses, things get worse. The Farmer’s wife dies, a victim of an accident at the Baron’s factory, and when we finally arrive we hear one man counsel another: “Careful, it’s all rotten.” What’s all rotten? Our mind is filled with the worst possible images until Haneke, taking his sweet time, pans over to the rotten wooden floorboards that gave way and ended a life.
But it is all rotten. Things are whispered and people’s minds are filled with the worst possible images. It’s said that the Baron is to blame for the accident, and during harvest celebration one of the Farmer’s sons takes revenge by destroying the Baron’s cabbage patch. It’s a clumsy, known event that shames the Farmer. Later that night, the Baron’s curly-headed son, Sigi (Fion Mutert), goes missing, and is found at 2:30 a.m., hanging upside-down in the barn, whipped and in a state of shock. Later still the barn is burned. What undercurrent, whose undercurrent, is controlling events in this village?
The following year, the Steward’s daughter confesses to the Teacher that she dreamed something horrible will happen to Karli, the mentally disabled son of the Midwife. Has she dreamed it? Or has she been told it? And why? Why would someone do such a thing to Karli? The Midwife, we know, has been having an affair with the Doctor—we see him schtupping her without pleasure upon his return from the hospital—but he ends their relationship brutally, telling her she’s ugly, old, flabby, has bad breath, and when she doesn’t get it, declares, “My God, why don’t you just die?” Shortly after, his son, Gustav (Thibault Sérié), four or five years old, wakens one evening to find his older, teenaged sister, Anna (Roxane Duran), gone from their bedroom. He goes downstairs, scared, calling her name. He opens doors. Behind one of them he finds his father and sister. Her nightgown is pushed up, exposing her thighs. She’s getting her ears pieced, she says. She doesn’t seem scared. Haneke is putting us in the position of the villagers. We just get glimpses behind closed doors. Our minds are filled with the worst possible images.
Eventually something horrible does happen to Karli. He’s tortured, blinded, tied to a tree, and a note is left behind quoting Biblical text about the sins of the parents being visited upon the children, even unto the third or fourth generation. One assumes the Pastor’s children are responsible, as one assumed from the beginning, with Klara the ringleader and Martin the reluctant participant. But why the Midwife’s son? Because of the Midwife’s affair with the Doctor? Because of the rumors that she and the Doctor killed the Doctor’s Wife five years earlier?
The Pastor keeps punishing his children by making them wear ribbons of white, the color of innocence, to remind them of the purity from which they came, but it hardly helps. We see Klara killing the Pastor’s favorite bird and leaving the evidence on his desk. He knows she did it. Or: We suspect greatly that he suspects greatly that she did it. But when the School Teacher comes to him with accusations of their crimes, the Pastor protects what’s his and threatens the School Teacher. By this point, the Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated and the Great War begun. You could say we are unto the third or fourth generation still suffering from those 1914 sins.
Is there any innocence in Haneke’s vision? Any beauty beyond the cinematography? The School Teacher begins a relationship with Eva (Leonie Benesch), who’s working as a nanny, and they have a kind of halting, stammering sweetness together. But the relationship is mostly marked by its difficulties. This is a world where kindness is difficult, brutality easy and total.
Perhaps the most instructive scene occurs between Gustav and Anna at the breakfast nook after the death of the Farmer’s wife. Earlier Gustav had worried about their father’s absence and Anna had assured him he would return. Remember when you got sick last winter? Then you got better? It’s like that. But now he asks about death. She tries to explain it. “Does everyone die?” he asks. Yes. “Everyone really? But not you, Anni?” Me, too. “But not Dad.” Yes, Papa. Then he makes the big leap. “Me, too? It has to happen? ... And Mom? Is she dead, too?” Anna couches her answers with the comfort of time, which is actually the enemy. Mom died a long time ago, she says. He, Gustav, won’t die for a long time. But Gustav is making the connection all of us make, and that may mark the true end of innocence and the true beginning of brutality: the knowledge, which we carry all of our lives, that everyone and everything, including us, dies. And he angrily sweeps the dishes onto the floor. It’s a great scene.
If “The White Ribbon” sounds like an interesting film, it is. It’s interesting to write about, interesting to talk about, but less interesting to watch. It’s not that I disagree with Haneke’s vision, I merely think it’s devoid of light. He’s incomplete. What he's missing is a glimmer of anything that makes life worth living. He’s a child angrily sweeping the dishes onto the floor.
“Bitte verzeihen Sie.”
Review: “The Last Station” (2009)
WARNING: WAR AND SPOILERS
It’s odd scribbling critics’ notes while watching Michael Hoffman’s “The Last Station,” which is based upon Jay Pirini’s novel on the last days of Leo Tolstoy, since several characters on screen are also taking notes and it’s not exactly positive. More like the scuttling of rats. You want to apologize to other audience members for doing what you’re doing. I’m not a bad person; I’m just a critic.
I was never a Tolstoyan in believing exactly what he believed, or going through the crises he went through, but for a time, in my early twenties, I read him thoroughly and wholeheartedly. Not only was he one of the great 19th century writers but his writing gave birth to the better part of the 20th century: the non-violent movements of Gandhi and King. He’s so identified with the 19th century, in fact, that it’s startling to see the date at the beginning of the movie: 1910. Did Tolstoy really live that long? He did. Long enough to be filmed at Yasnaya Polyana, the estate where he was born, lived and was buried. He died elsewhere. But I’m getting ahead.
The movie opens with that most awful of 20th-century encounters: the job interview. Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy) is being interviewed by Vladimir Chertkov (a perhaps-too-smarmy Paul Giamatti) about becoming private secretary to Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer). Valentin is a Tolstoyan through and through. He’s both vegetarian and celibate, he says. He’s read Tolstoy’s philosophy and wants to live it completely—which is to say: narrowly. He’s been shown the path and wants to stay on that path, and no other, and when he gets the job he tears up from joy, and afterwards continually breathes out from repressed joy, scarcely believing his luck, even though Chertkov makes it apparent that he’s hiring not just a secretary but a spy. He warns Valentin that the Tolstoyan movement has many, many enemies and lists them off: the Russian Orthodox Church, the Tsar’s police, and the Countess Sofya Tolstoy (Helen Mirren), Tolstoy’s wife. This last one is key. He gives Valentin a diary. “Write. Everything. Down,” he says.
Valentin has the peculiar (and dramatically facile) habit of sneezing whenever he’s nervous, and at Yasnaya, which is divided between a commune of workers and the estate of the Tolstoys, he sneezes a lot. At the commune, where he sleeps, he meets a 20th century girl chopping wood, Masha (Kerry Condon), who stares at him boldly, amusedly, and not without interest, and encourages him to speak his mind, despite Sergeyenko (Patrick Kennedy), the tight-assed man running the place. “This is a place of freedom,” Sergeyenko says after listing the rules. “We are all equals here,” he says without joy.
At the estate, where Valentin works, he’s greeted by another woman, yelling down at him from the second floor. “You!” she says. So much for equality. This is Tolstoy’s daughter, Sasha (Ann-Marie Duff), who, after he apologizes and sneezes his way into an explanation for his being, tells him to wait in the library. Nothing, of course, could make him happier. Tolstoy’s library! Tolstoy’s books and papers! Then Tolstoy himself arrives, welcomes him, engages him, causes him to cry with happiness. “I am no one and you are Lev Tolstoy,“ Valentin says. ”And you ask me about my work.“ As do all great men. It may be the definition of great men.
Yasnaya is not only divided between workers’ estate and the Tolstoy's estate but between those who believe in the movement (and see Tolstoy as a prophet), and those who are less enamored of equality and fraternity (and see him as a man). The former group includes daughter Sasha; Dushan the doctor (John Sessions), forever scribbling in his notebook; and the initially absent Chertkov, under house arrest elsewhere. The latter group includes, well, the Countess. Tolstoy is caught between groups. Our man, our eyes, Valentin, intellectually sides with the movement but has an open heart. It’s what saves him from the absolutism of the others.
Mirren, by the way, is amazing: annoying yet sympathetic, haughty yet fragile, comic yet tragic. She’s afraid her husband will sign away the copyrights to his work (which he does); she’s afraid that he’s moving away from her (which he is), so she clings, cajoles, seduces. She upbraids him for dressing like a man who tends sheep, then calls herself “his little chicken” and calls him “her big cock” and gets him to crow happily in bed. She reminds him that she bore him 13 children and wrote out “War and Peace” six times and how could he betray her like this? With Valentin she’s equally blunt, telling him he’s “rather handsome in a sort of peculiar way.”. She asks him, while they walk, if he’s a virgin, and when he stutters and sneezes and begins to quote Tolstoy to her, she says breezily, “You know, when he was your age he was whoring in the Caucasus.” Then she gives him a diary and tells him to write down what he sees. “What. You. See,” she says.
Valentin goes for walks with Tolstoy, too, and when Tolstoy asks him the deep questions of life, Valentin quotes Tolstoy to Tolstoy, which is the last thing Tolstoy wants. “I know what I say,” he says pleasantly, “but what do you say?” Valentin admits he doesn’t know. Tolstoy replies, with a touch of helplessness, “Neither do I.” It’s a poignant scene.
Things come to a head (a headier head) when Chertkov is released from house arrest and arrives at Yasnaya. From outside he greets his nemesis, the Countess, who’s on the second-floor balcony:
Chertkov: I’m happy to see you.
Countess: And I’m happy to make you happy.
Chertkov (wearing the tightest of smiles): Ha ha ha ha.
But the tighter she tries to hold onto Tolstoy the more he slips away from her. Meanwhile Valentin is the passive and nervous and then joyful recipient of the advances of Masha, who, like in an adolescent male fantasy, comes to his room at night, silently climbs atop him, and removes her gown. Basically she knocks him off his narrow path and widens his world. Condon, mousy in the HBO series “Rome,” where she played Octavia, the innocent daughter of the villainess, Atia, is stunningly sexy here. Bravo for boldness. McAvoy is also a surprise. He was forgettable to me in “Last King” and “Atonement,” for which he won raves (and BAFTA nominations), and unforgettable here, where every emotion reads visibly, humanly on his face. (Put it this way: He didn’t need the sneeze—except for comic effect.) Yet no one’s mentioning him and the awards season has already passed him by. So it goes.
“The Last Station” is straightforward, enjoyable storytelling, with great performances, that is, on a personal level, whollly evocative. I kept thinking of the last chapter of Philip Roth's near-perfect novella “The Ghost Writer,” entitled Married to Tolstoy," on the difficulties of living with a writer. As Tolstoy gets more and more fed up with his wife, threatening to leave her and Yasnaya Polyana, I also flashed back to my college roommate, Brian M., reading about this incident and laughing uproariously at the image of Tolstoy basically running away from home at the age of 82. It’s less funny here. He only makes it as far as Astopovo, the last station of the title. One feels, as the world gathers to hear of his death, that he’s simply an old man being used.
All of this takes place exactly 100 years ago. As the 20th century progressed, Tolstoy’s views, via Gandhi and King, became more and more important, even as his station in life, the writer’s station, became less and less so. He was born the year after the French government patented the fountain pen, he was 45 years old when the first typewriter with a QWERTY keyboard became commercially successful, and by the time he died, well, he was one of the most famous men in the world. Writers mattered. As the century progressed it became easier to write, and easier to publish, and so more people did, and so it mattered less. And now we’ve got what we’ve got. The egalitarianism Tolstoy sought has played out in the craft he perfected—to the craft’s detriment. We're all equals here.
Review: “Crazy Heart” (2009)
WARNING: UNBUTTONED SPOILERS
Generally in stories about a down-on-his-luck artist attempting redemption through a woman and a comeback through his art, the work of art in question, which everyone in the movie says is great, stunning, worthy of turning a life around, is actually fairly ordinary. In “Crazy Heart,” written and directed by Scott Cooper, the work of art is a country song, “The Weary Kind,” written by Ryan Bingham and produced by T. Bone Burnett. Two things: 1) it’s great, stunning, worthy of turning a life around, and 2) it only turns around the life of the artist, country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges), so much. It indicates a direction but it doesn’t necessarily get him home.
Blake, 58, is overweight and a drinker. As the movie begins, the country legend is driving the American Southwest in his ’78 Suburban, Bessie, and playing in dives. Because the first place we see him play is a bowling alley, and he arrives long-haired, dissheveled, bearded and unbuttoned, ordering a drink at the bowling-alley bar, one can’t help but think of Bridge’s most famous character, the Dude from “The Big Lebowski”; but that’s where the similarity ends. The Dude was happy in bowling alleys but Blake takes one look and says aloud to his absent manager, “Jack, you bastard.” He doesn’t get a bar tab (his reputation has preceded him), isn’t interested in rehearsing with his star-struck back-up band (including Ryan Bingham as Tony), and near the end of his set flees the stage to throw up in a back-alley garbage can. That night he sleeps with an aging groupie, one of 20 or so fans who bothered to show up, then he sneaks out of Pueblo, New Mexico. The question for the viewer: Is this bottom?
We find out he hasn’t written a song in three years. He also has a former partner, Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), who’s a big star, but with whom Blake refuses to play anymore. One assumes bad blood and betrayal.
The next gig is a little better, a real bar, and he arrives mid-afternoon to hear a man playing the piano and playing it well. Blake gives him a nod of compliment and the man returns the favor and then asks for another. His niece is a reporter with the Santa Fe paper. Would he give her an interview?
The niece is Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and they meet cute. For the interview she gives a quick rap on his motel room door and opens it... to find him sitting in a towel and watching chicas on his motel-room TV.
It’s meeting cute but it’s meeting false. Who barges into a stranger’s motel room with hardly a knock? For a journalist, too, her questions are fairly generic, as if she’d done no research at all. Who were your influences? Did you ever want to be anything else? In today’s world of artificial country music, who’s real country? His answers are good, particularly on wanting to be a baseball player until someone threw him a curve ball (“Figured I’d stay with the guitar. Sonuvabitch stayed where it’s supposed to”), but that doesn’t excuse the questions. She also sleeps with her subject, which is a whole other matter.
She becomes, of course, the love interest, and one of the sources of Blake’s redemption, but I was rarely interested in their relationship. It felt icky. Because of the age difference? Because I didn’t quite get what she saw in him or he in her? Because her journalism is questionable? Because I knew he would let her down in some awful way?
His relationship with other people, meanwhile, always intrigued me. He finally lets his manager book him as the opening act for Tommy Sweet, who used to open for him, and one expects an egotistsical, grandstanding upstart. Instead Tommy’s appreciative and admiring of his former mentor. All this time, the problem had been Blake and his pride, his old lion’s pride, which is still on display when Tommy sneaks onstage, to squeals from the crowd, 12,000-strong, during Blake’s opening number to sing a duet with the legend. There’s a frozen disapproval in Blake’s face and body language, and there are subtle tensions when the two talk backstage, and all of that is a joy to watch because it feels real; because it makes you wonder about both men. Hell, I liked the back-and-forth Blake has with the sound-man, Bear, during the sound check:
Blake: Bear, Bear, Bear! I need kick and snare, turn down the damn guitar, you’re drowning out the lyrics.
Bear: Mix is good, man. You can’t hear what I’m hearing out here.
Blake: Bear, I’m an old man, I get grumpy. Humor me.
Tommy wants a longer tour, and songs, from his former partner, and after Blake gets into a car accident and winds up recuperating at Jean’s place, he begins to write the one that will become “The Weary Kind.” In lesser films he’d realize what he has and keep it and record it for himself and become a star again (that, in fact, is the story the trailer implies). In this film, he realizes what he has and mails it off to Tommy anyway, who, down the road, will make it a hit, which will make Blake a little sum of money. There’s a matter-of-factness to all this. It’s how life is.
Pride, though, was only one thing holding Blake back. The other was drink. Artistically he may have hit bottom at that bowling alley in Pueblo, but alcoholics have deeper, harder bottoms. In Santa Fe, Blake takes Jean’s four-year-old son, Buddy (Jack Nation), to the park for the day, and Jean returns to a darkened home. No Buddy. No Bad. She panics for five seconds until they walk in the door, Buddy with stories already spilling out of his mouth, Blake, looking a wreck, assuring her, “Nobody died.” This prefigures a later scene in Houston when Blake loses Buddy in a mall. Blake had a son from a previous relationship, a grown man now and understandably uninterested in his father’s attempts to reconnect with him, whom Blake last saw when he was four. The man has a bad habit of losing four-year-old boys.
Buddy’s found in the mall but Jean is unforgiving and cuts things off with Blake for good. And that, after another bender, is Blake’s bottom.
“Crazy Heart” could be subtitled “The Partial Redemption of a Country Legend.” That’s really all it is. Its appeal lies in the peformances—particularly Bridges, who is both monumental and as ordinary as any day in our lives—and in the details. I like the size of Bridge’s mangled fingers next to Buddy’s. I like how, saying good-bye in Santa Fe, Jean grimaces away from Blake’s alcoholic breath. (“Mustard gas and roses,” Kurt Vonnegut used to call it.) I like the small scene, after he sobers up and after Jean still rejects him, where he’s cleaning his place and finds Buddy’s Superman t-shirt under the bed. He picks up the phone. Then he pauses, sets the phone back down, folds the little boys’ t-shirt in his lap. It’s such a small shirt and that emblem is so big and says so much. Will he mail it back? Will he keep it? We don’t know. We just know he won’t use it as an excuse to inject himself into her life again. It wasn’t easy being Bad, but it’s even harder being decent.
The movie has some false notes but the music doesn’t. The songs this country legend sings are actually good songs:
I used to be somebody
Now I am somebody else
Who I’ll be tomorrow
Is anybody’s guess
They’re as matter-of-fact and down-to-earth as the movie, which almost didn’t get distribution. Now it’s out in a handful of theaters making a little sum of money. It’s how life is.