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Jeff Bridges Has a "Crazy Heart"

Directed by Scott Cooper
Written by Scott Cooper, based on the novel by Thomas Cobb
With: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell

"I used to be somebody," sings ruined country-western legend Bad Blake (Bridges, looking uncannily like Kris Kristofferson), "but I used to be somebody else." Like all great C&W lyrics, those dozen words sum up a lifetime's worth of missteps, complications and rueful perspective gained just a little too late. 

Blake used to be a star, a natural-born tunesmith who turned out perfectly crafted songs about heartbreak, hard times and the beckoning road, and sang them with a hit-making mix of grit, warmth and "been there, done that" weariness. Now he's a bitter, barely functioning alcoholic, reduced to living out of his car and playing murkily lit bowling alleys and hole-in-the-wall bars because no one else will have him. Having systematically torpedoed every relationship he ever had, Blake lives on bitter pride and stews in the knowledge that he could write rings around every fresh-faced Nashville star worth a good Goddamn, including his onetime protégé, crossover country-pop star Tommy Sweet (Farrell); he wouldn’t accept a helping hand if it were wrapped around a jeroboam of bourbon.

And then fate tosses him a life raft in the form of a potentially stable relationship with small-time journalist Jean Craddock (Gyllenhaal), a single mother half his age whose bright-eyed little boy is a stinging reminder that Blake abandoned his own son years ago. But he's an old dog who isn't interested in learning new tricks. He can't even be bothered to write new songs, despite a lucrative and thoroughly respectful offer from Sweet.

It’s glib, lazy, critics' shorthand to call Crazy Heart Bridges' The Wrestler. It’s not even particularly accurate: Unlike Mickey Rourke, Bridges is no human road wreck in desperate need of career rehab: He’s logged more than 40 years of steady work in a notoriously fickle business without a single detour into tabloid hell. But the comparison is irresistible, because Crazy Heart is a low-budget, end-of-year release that came out of nowhere and threw Oscar handicappers into a tizzy by introducing dark horse into the best actor race.

Like The Wrestler, Crazy Heart is a middling movie powered by a stunning performance: Bridges powers through the show-biz clichés and finds the sad, proud, cussed essence of Bad Blake — his soul, if you will. And even the tacked-on kinda/sorta happy ending can’t diminish his accomplishment; stunning though Rourke's performance as Randy "The Ram" Robinson is, Bridges' flawless evocation of the slick delusions and ragged charm of a self-destructive has-been is more impressive still. Rourke, after all, has been there. Bridges, a Hollywood kid (his father was '50s TV star Lloyd Bridges) who earned his first Oscar nomination at 22 and is, at the age of 60, doing consistently better work than Robert De Niro, Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman, is faking it with such complete conviction that if you didn’t know who he was, you’d take him for the real thing.

Which is, of course, what acting is all about… oh, and did I mention that Bridges can sing? Not like a classically trained vocalist, but like the guy who could find the everyday poetry in those pitch-perfect pastiches by Stephen Bruton, T-Bone Burnett and alt-country rocker Ryan Bingham and sell it without breaking a sweat. The scene in which Bridges and Farrell effortlessly wrap an arena full of country-pop fans around their fingers with an "impromptu" duet on the Bad Blake standard "Seems Like Flying" stands on its own merits; it flawlessly captures the electric moment when an audience suddenly hears a song that was a hit before their mothers were born as though it were vividly, thrillingly new. When you know it was shot in less than 15 minutes before a pack of Toby Keith fans waiting for their idol to take the stage, well, you just about have to stand up and salute.

So, hell, put my name on the "Jeff Bridges deserves a damned Oscar" petition. Crazy Heart may not be a great movie, but without Bridges it would be a Hallmark Hall of Fame trifle.

For more by Maitland McDonagh:

"Fascinating Aida" Is Clever Satire

Written by Dillie Keane & Adèle Anderson
Directed by Frank Thompson

For over a quarter of a century, a trio of witty Brits has been amusing audiences with pointed political musical satire and a few jabs at social mores. The latest version, Fascinating Aïda – Absolutely Miraculous, in the Brits Off Broadway Festival includes some numbers that you won’t find even from hot American satirists.

Early '80s trio members Dillie Keane and Adèle Anderson are joined by new trooper Liza Pullman in a collection of clever skits that sometimes recall the classical American satirist Tom Lehrer, occasionally reach heights Lehrer never dreamed off, and sometimes, alas, descend to a vulgarity that belongs in Broadway comedy clubs.

The writers are Keane, the pianist with a dry demeanor and perpetual scowl, a founder of the group, and Anderson, who came a year later. The director is Frank Thompson, who turns the theater production into fast-paced cabaret.

At the best are satirical jabs at the financial crisis, "The Markets"; a sharp poke at celebrities, "I Just Want to Be Famous"; and a hysterically funny clever send-up of Marlene Dietrich, Lotte Lenya and German songstresses, "Lieder." These are so good, that it’s almost churlish to mention downsides.

The show starts with the delicious "I Just Want to Be Famous," including "I’m going out in a see-through dress and underwear by Prada; Got myself snapped at the latest club in a very provocative pose …And if I’m not in the papers tomorrow, next night I’ll try harder, dancing on the bar with Mickey Rourke wearing even fewer clothes. Oh, it isn’t too late, it isn’t too late, it isn’t too late to be famous."

Well, those are the slightly tacky wannabe’s. But what about the left-liberal good guys? Listen to "White’s Blues": "We vacation in Mauritius, yes, I know it’s a very long flight; But we pay our carbon offsets, so that makes it all right; Ooh, I ain’t got the blues, I’ve got those we’re helping local economies by supporting eco-tourism; Well-meaning Times-reading whites."

And "If they drill for oil in Alaska, it’s an ecological bummer; but it would be so inconvenient if I couldn’t drive my Hummer.  Ooh, I ain’t got the blues, I’ve got those actually, it balances out, ’cause the nanny’s car is tiny, socially sensitive whites."

"Lieder" is a brilliant parody, but it’s more than the words, it’s the actions of the singers who are a hoot as they perch on chairs with their legs aloft akimbo. "It doesn’t matter if you sing out of tune, so long as you’re German…. (off key) . …So if your voice sounds like it’s coming through a strainer, sing it out of sync, like Marlene, and soon you’ll be compared to Lotte Lenya… who was Austrian."

There’s a series of Elizabethan airs that lampoon politicians and other worthy targets. "Carla Bruni! Carla Bruni! She makes men feel swoony….nothing that she does could ever cause affront, even though she’s married to that Gallic runt." And "Tony Blair’s got a vital job, oh…In which to make his mark; Bringing peace to Israel oy…Just like he did in Iraq. Ululate."

Pulman has a very fine soprano, though my attention was distracted by the fact that both her costumes had necklines of the sort that threaten wardrobe malfunctions. Adèle and Dillie seemed content to direct attention to their voices and acting.

I didn’t like crude sexual numbers such as "Chastity (begins in public)"  and "Dogging,"which belong in comedy clubs or frat houses. Such audiences never heard of Carla Bruni or Tony Blair. Fascinating Aïda sometimes seems confused about who her/their audience is.

Let me end with "The Markets" because it is so right-on — I know because I’m writing about this now in my investigative journalist's life. To the tune of the Major General's Song from Gilbert and Sullivan's 1879 comic opera, The Pirates of Penzance:

"Derivatives are monetary instrument, to put it very neatly:
But unlike stocks and shares the actual value comes from something else completely;
The value of derivatives derive, you see, from value underlying
And are often used to lessen risk for speculators selling and/or buying;
Now value can be notional or market and those values never meet
In addition, only market value gets recorded on the balance sheet;
Oh, and a sell is not a sell, it’s called a put, just as a buy is called a call;
And thus anything you call, you’d better put before the prices start to fall."

And next there’s short selling and hedge funds and more. To get it, you have to be au courant enough to know what they are talking about, which admittedly is not most of the audience. But take it from me, Fascinating Aïda understands (and skewers) the financial system as well as any financial analyst.

Fascinating Aïda
59 East 59th Street
New York City
Opened December 17, 2009; closes January 3, 2010

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Photo credit: Andy Bradshaw


Visionary View of "Ragtime" America

Book by Terrence McNally
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge

Starring Quentin Earl Darrington, Jonathan Hammond, Donna Migliaccio, Michael X. Martin, Aaron Galligan-Stierle, Robert Petkoff, Savannah Wise, Mike McGowan, Eric Jordan Young

The power and sweep of Ragtime take your breath away. The mix of true history and invention yields a bittersweet story anchored in the panorama of American history.

It is the early 1900s in New Rochelle. The upper-class white family and their friends — dressed in white — cakewalk and sing of their bucolic lives in the Westchester suburbs. We learn, through Lynn Ahrens’s lyrics, that there were ladies with parasols, fellows with tennis balls, but, “There were no Negroes.” Not in New Rochelle.

Shift to Harlem, where Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Darrington) is playing ragtime for pulsating black dancers.

“And there were no immigrants.” The set by Derek McLane is a multilevel iron structure that invokes Pennsylvania Station which was completed in 1910 and was called a “civic masterpiece.”

Above, on a high walkway, a stream of new arrivals swathed in dark clothes (costumes by Santo Loquasto) and clutching bundles moves wondrously into a new world. Harry Houdini (Hammond), born the Jew Eric Weiss in Austria, drops in from the sky, upside down.

And the militant Emma Goldman (Migliaccio) denounces the capitalist exploiters, J.P. Morgan (Martin) and Henry Ford (Galligan-Stierle).

That’s just the opening of this inspiring revival of the musical by Terrence McNally, based on E.L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel.
Marcia Milgrom Dodge has directed and choreographed it with poetry, style and elegance, pulling together the strands of Doctorow’s interwoven narratives so that the pastiche makes a rich fabric of early 20th-century America.

The characters are meant as symbols, as the play mixes real people with invented ones, true events with imaginary ones. The fictional people come from three families—upper-middle class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, immigrant socialist Jews from Latvia, and Harlem blacks.  They represent American dreams: the woman who feels hemmed in by her status as a wife, an immigrant hoping for a better life, a black man seeking equality.

The sound and beat that backdrops the story is ragtime, a new music that represented new attitudes. It was a metaphor for Doctorow, who said that taking the imagery of a rag bin of threads and tatters of images and ideas, he wanted to look at the disparate, conflicting and intersecting strands of humanity that made up America at the turn of the century. It was a time when European immigration peaked, as in 1907, 1.2 million immigrants arrived at Ellis Island. Labor struggles were endemic. Racism was virulent.

The dramatic vignettes are interspersed seamlessly as the story builds to interconnect the lives of the rich whites, the blacks, the immigrants to create one fabric. The story is gripping.

The interweaving of the true and invented give the play both a personal emotion and verisimilitude, each strand strengthening the other. McNally is faithful to the story and to what Doctorow wanted to say. It is a masterful combination.

Real figures include Emma Goldman, powerfully drawn by Donna Migliaccio, as the radical union organizer speaking for the rights of workers, including the immigrants who traded bad times in Europe for misery on the Lower East Side. Her Union Square rally is broken up by violent police.

She had her work cut out for her in this time of industrialization and the assembly line. J.P. Morgan wears a top hat and fur lapel, while workers struggle to get their fair share. Doctorow’s hero Tateh (Petkoff) arrives from Latvia, but leaves the jobless Lower East Side for a mill in Lawrence, Mass. Striking workers there are attacked by thugs and cops.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, frivolity reigns. Evelyn Nesbit (played with sharp humor by Wise), the chorus-girl wife of millionaire Harry Thaw (Josh Walden), who inherited a coke and railroad fortune, finds fame in a sex scandal. Thaw kills architect Stanford White (McGowan), who had once been Nesbit’s lover.

The trial filled the tabloids, and Evelyn milks it in a vaudeville act. Mother’s Younger Brother (Bobby Steggert) falls in love with Nesbit, but then goes to the Goldman rally. Steggert is appealing as the young fellow who has compassion for the suffering workers and swaps frivolous infatuation for radical politics.

In the race strand, Doctorow’s ragtime pianist Coalhouse has fallen in love with Sarah (Stephanie Umoh),given shelter by Mother (Christiane Noll) while Father (Ron Bohmer) is away with Admiral Peary on an expedition to the North Pole. Returning from New Rochelle in his Model-T, Coalhouse is stopped by racists of the Emerald Isle fire house, who set in motion heartbreaking events that destroy his dreams. He vows revenge.

We hear the Negro leader Booker T. Washington (Young) preach non-violent forbearance and see the dénouement occurs symbolically at J.P. Morgan’s Library on Madison Avenue and 35th Street.

The story shows the tragedies that ensued during the struggle for justice. But it also points to the transformative power of the new world. Mother challenges patriarchy.

She sings, "I was content, a princess asleep and enchanted. If I had dreams, then I let you dream them for me.” Those were “the days when I let you make all my choices.” She recalls, “I was your wife. It never occurred to want more.” But, “We can never go back to before.” Now, everything is possible.

The singing is first rate, including Mother/Noll’s bell soprano, Father/Bohmer’s tenor and Booker T. Washington/Young’s excellent baritone. Migliaccio is especially strong as Emma Goldman, Darrington, rent by fury, and Umoh, driven by desperation, are a moving couple as Coalhouse and Sarah.

Stephen Flaherty’s music expertly describes the characters and the mood. There is a charming jazzy idiom of ragtime and gospel. They are interspersed with anthems, operetta-style waltzes and genteel parlor songs. The choreography is bright and memorable, mixing the styles of the different social groups till they are woven into a new 20th century fashion. This is one of the important plays of American musical theater.

Neil Simon Theatre
250 West 52nd Street
New York City
Opened November 15, 2009

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

Kevin’s Digital Week #6

Blu-ray of the Week
The Mel Brooks Collection
Although his comedies grew increasingly spotty in their laughs over the years, at his best in the mid to late ‘70s, Mel Brooks made audience-pleasing farces combining crude belly laughs with sophisticated movie-buff humor. This deluxe boxed set houses eight Brooks-directed films and a mediocre remake of To Be or Not to Be (1983) starring Brooks and wife Anne Bancroft that was directed by Alan Johnson.

The Twelve Chairs
(1970), History of the World—Part I (1981), Spaceballs (1987) and Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) alternate gutbusters with desperately unfunny segments, while the big four—Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (both 1974), Silent Movie (1976) and High Anxiety (1977)—can be watched again and again without sacrificing hilarity. Brooks was never a primarily visual director, so aside from sharper clarity, the Blu-ray transfers aren’t that much better than the original DVDs: with the stunning exception of Young Frankenstein, whose lustrous B&W photography looks so beautiful that you might find yourself admiring it at the expense of the comedy.

No matter: just watch it again. The discs are housed in an impressive coffee-table box which includes a full-color 120-page book about Brooks’ career. Extras include commentaries, interviews and deleted scenes, including six new making-of featurettes.

DVD of the Week
The Golden Age of Television
Even for a company like the Criterion Collection, which releases classic films every month, The Golden Age of Television is a big deal. This three-disc set collects eight full-length plays originally shown live on television in the ‘50s, then shown on PBS in the ‘80s with introductions and recollections from various principals.

The plays include Rod Serling’s biting drama Patterns, Paddy Chayefsky’s groundbreaking Marty, and three other hard-hitting works, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Days of Wine and Roses and Bang the Drum Slowly, the last of which stars a dynamic young actor named Paul Newman.

Watching these old kinescopes (the audio and visual quality is substandard, but since that’s all that survives of these live performances, we should be grateful for what we have) is an evocative experience, especially when watching such splendid performers as Rod Steiger, Richard Kiley, Ed Begley, Jack Palance, Kim Hunter, Piper Laurie and Cliff Robertson play meaty roles in dramatic plays that would never be shown on TV today. Extras include commentaries by directors John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann, Ralph Nelson and Daniel Petrie, and cast and crew interviews.

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