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Jeff Bridges radiates in lackluster “Crazy Heart”

Jeff Bridges embodies the ache of a drink-drowned life in "Crazy Heart."

Country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) would smoke three cigarettes at once if he could, and after a few hours of daylight boozing he almost does. Mostly Bad just uses the smoldering butts to light new ones, a constant effort to busy his mind with nicotine. A man like that has a lot of hard stories in him, and any one he lets out is one you want to hear. Bad’s got a way of making everything sound like pearls of wisdom even when he was too drunk to learn his lesson.

A part like this requires a certain kind of actor, and that happens to be the kind of actor Jeff Bridges has been throughout his whole career: mumbly voice, weathered, closed-off face, tired eyes that look distant but take in everything. From Barney Cousins to Michael Faraday, The Dude and beyond, he has been finding the minute details that make his characters as long as he’s been playing them. Bad Blake may shame all the rest, and the role will be the one that wins the actor the accolades that have eluded him. Should Bridges nab that Best Actor Oscar, forget all the chatter about it being some placating “Lifetime Achievement Award.” He’ll deserve that statuette based on Bad Blake and Bad Blake alone.

Scott Cooper’s “Crazy Heart,” adapted from Thomas Cobb’s novel, is a showcase for Bridges, and don’t let anyone tell you different. He’s the center of most shots, the man everyone else orbits around (though Maggie Gyllenhaal and Colin Farell don’t waste their parts). And because he has such presence, that almost excuses some of the film’s more obvious flaws, like the underwritten secondary characters, the overreliance on twangy background music (not to be confused with Bad’s excellent concerts) and the recycled story, which sometimes feels like “Walk the Line.” (In fairness, the Bad Man Uplifted by Good Woman’s Love tale is older than time.) Unlike “Walk the Line,” “Crazy Heart” opens at a low point: Suffering that perpetual day-after-yesterday syndrome late-stage alcoholism brings, Bad’s broke and reduced to playing bowling alleys, the only places people still recognize him. His fans don’t get their money’s worth, since he plays so loaded on McClure’s he mumbles through every song. His refusal to bend to Nashville trends makes him a dinosaur; however, his more successful protégé Tommy Sweet (Farell) hasn’t given up. Tommy wants Bad to write new material, but with five marriages over and no life to speak of, Bad figures he’s got nothing left to write about.

Into this spiral appears Jean Craddock (Gyllenhaal), a Santa Fe single mother and freelance writer who wants to interview the musician. He latches onto her as his beacon of goodness, and her 4-year-old son Buddy (Jack Nation) gives him the shot at fatherhood he gave up 24 years ago, when abandoned his own son. Down is the only place this affair can go, naturally, yet Gyllenhaal generates so much spirit and warmth that she doesn’t seem like the crutch/muse/stray-collector Jean’s written to be. Through her eyes we see a flicker of life in Bad’s eyes. When he drawls “I wanna talk about how bad you make this room look,” her attraction to him feels … warranted. Farell, too, takes his flat character to higher levels, playing Tommy not as a showboating poser but a genuine talent with respect for his mentor. Only Robert Duvall, as Bad’s longtime confidante Wayne, seems wholly wasted. 

Acting aside, there are other things “Crazy Heart” gets right, like the cinematography (the stunning, arid landscapes of Texas, Santa Fe and Arizona give Barry Markowitz plenty to work with) and the music. Nobody bests T-Bone Burnett at churning out to-the-marrow gems like “Fallin’ & Flyin'” and the achingly exquisite “The Weary Kind.” Songs like these have a slow, whiskey burn doing down, and they cannot exist separately from the film. They are the film, and so is Bridges’ performance of them. Whether he’s singing “I used to be somebody / Now I’m somebody else” or “this ain’t no place for the weary kind,” he’ll crack your heart right open. You couldn’t stop him if you tried.

Grade: B-

One to Watch: “Crazy Heart”

Between his fan-friggin’-tastic performance as Obadiah Stone in “Iron Man” and this, consider my opinion of Jeff Bridges totally and unequivocally revised.

No. 7: “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962)

“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” ~~Atticus Finch

There’s a thematic undercurrent running through “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Robert Mulligan’s brilliant, poignant adaptation of Harper Lee’s beloved novel, that reveals itself in the form of a blunt question. “What kind of man are you?” Bob Ewell (James Anderson) spits at Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck), the Alabama lawyer who dares to defend a black man in the Depression-era Deep South. A simple question, really, but it cuts a straight line to the heart of Mulligan’s purpose: showing us who a man is and what (or who) made him that way.  

This is a complex and engaging issue in any film, but it pushes “To Kill a Mockingbird” on an entirely different path than the one Lee walked us down in her novel. Mulligan and Horton Foote, with his rich screenplay, slightly shift the focus from the inquisitive tomboy Scout (Mary Badham) and her practical older brother Jem (Phillip Alfrod) to their widowed father Atticus. This is a risky choice — Lee’s book, after all, explores how Scout’s childish views change — but one that deepens the story and shows us how Atticus, too, grows and changes. In this way Mulligan preserves the spirit of the novel and expands the focus. So “To Kill a Mockingbird” becomes a multi-layered exploration of the factors that shape human values in addition to a coming-of-age tale.

Much of the events and characters exist relatively unchanged. The narrator (Kim Stanley), the grown-up Scout, recalls a summer of her childhood in dusty Monroeville, Ala., where her father took on a court case that upended her world and the town’s sense of order. Atticus is the only man willing to defend Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of beating and raping a local white woman, Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox Patton). Atticus’ decision to do the right thing makes him a target for the townspeople’s rage, which Scout and Jem watch him weather with quiet wisdom. This subtle approach tends to anger Jem, who wants a rougher-edged father figure, and it fools everyone into thinking Atticus is a soft touch. (Not a chance — this is Gregory Peck.) Woven into this story is a spooky neighborhor named Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), who looms large in Scout and Jem’s imagination but eventually comes to play a much larger part in their summer. Yet even this does not encapsulate all that occurs in this richly textured story.

“Enough cannot be said.” That’s how my ninth-grade English teacher described “To Kill a Mockingbird” the novel, and I think his review applies to the film. There are so many elements deserving of praise, starting with the look of the film (shot in black and white) and the way the appearance captures the lazy-but-tense atmosphere of the small-town South. There is the pivotal courtroom scene, one of the finest and tensest and most dramatic ever filmed. And then there is the acting, good all the way from Badham, who gives Scout an impish innocence that’s irresistible, to Duvall, who has just minutes on screen but gives Boo Radley the kind of trembling presence he couldn’t manage on the page. Peck brings a kind of rumpled, world-weary bravery to Atticus that seems perfect for the character. He was born to be Atticus. There is no other choice. 

In the end, tough “To Kill a Mockingbird” deserves to be called one of the all-time great book-to-film translations, this movie is more than that. Mulligan does not lean too heavily on his source material, using it as a crutch to prop up an unoriginal copy. Nor does the director ignore the film’s inspiration altogether. What Mulligan does is create a timeless, captivating, touching motion picture that is a work of art in its own right. And that’s the kind of beautiful, rare achievement we must celebrate not once, but again and again.

No. 5: “Apocalypse Now” (1979)

“I used to think if I died in an evil place then my soul wouldn’t make it to heaven. Well, fuck. I don’t care where it goes as long it ain’t here.” ~~Chef

There’s a moment lurking in the soul-deadening “Apocalypse Now,” a moment nearly muted by the hum of machine gun fire, that seems thoroughly unremarkable: In the chaotic trenches outside the deep Vietnamese jungle, Cpt. Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), crawling on hands and knees in the dirt, asks who’s in charge. Wild-eyed, the closest soldier, reloading his gun, spits out: “Ain’t you?” 

That’s it, right there: the point of no return, the panicked realization that order and purpose have gone belly-up and taken hope right along with them. For in Francis Ford Coppola’s somber, haunting epic exploration of war and the shadowy places it drives men to, there is no hope. There’s just sweat mixed with the smell of napalm and dirty jungle water gone crimson with blood. Hope, Coppola informs us, left Vietnam long ago.

That abject despair — the kind that seeps down into your bones and slopes your shoulders — is what makes “Apocalypse Now” a masterpiece, a fearless and complex work of art that demands to be remembered as one of the greatest stories ever put to celluloid. Coppola’s masterwork is something that must be looked at and felt simultaneously, but the experience takes a piece out of us every time.

The way Sheen looks through the camera, though, it’s not hard to see “Apocalypse Now” demanded that same kind of intense emotional commitment from everyone involved in the production. Sheen, in particular, fills the screen with Cpt. Willard’s weariness. He’s been worn down by the violence, pared down from a whole person into a shell who hates war but can’t stomach peace, either. His decision to accept an odd mission — hunt down Col. Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), an A.W.O.L. Army Special Forces soldier who’s playing God somewhere deep in the jungles of Vietnam — changes not only his life but the lives of the men, who are mostly young and stupid and wholly unprepared, unfortunate enough to be part of the crew ferrying him up the Nung River. Willard knows what he’s in for but has no interest in playing father to a bunch of kids who treat the war as some kind of grand adventure. They’re in for a hell of a lesson, but Willard’s not exactly the sort to savor teaching moments.

In fact, part of the dark beauty of “Apocalypse Now” is the way Coppola showscases what warfare does to the human spirit. There’s a wrenching scene — one of the most unnerving in the entire movie — where Chef (Frederick Forrest) boards a civilian boat to search for supplies, and one false move leads Clean (Laurence Fishburne), the definition of green around the gills, to blow apart every unarmed person. Willard’s matter-of-fact dispatchment of the only survivor is most chilling, and that moment shifts the balance of emotion; it’s a loud, clear move from the bliss of ignorance to the weighty horror of realization. By the time Willard makes it to Kurtz’s outpost, the remaining soldiers can scarcely function as human beings, let alone killers. They stumble about with eyes that can’t focus because they don’t want to see anything anymore.

And here is where “Apocalypse Now,” so dynamic and huge in scope, succeeds on a surprisingly intimate level: There are characters we get to know, not anonymous faces bound for body bags. Forrest’s Chef is particularly frightening as we watch madness descend on him like a bell jar, while the fear behind Clean’s shoot-anything-that-moves approach gnaws at us. We get the sense that Robert Duvall’s Lt. Col. Kilgore’s has hardened his disbelief into an ardent belief that victory is possible (or maybe he’s just that crazy). And though Brando does fine work creating a man driven purely mad by what he’s seen, it’s Sheen who perfectly captures how war mutes the spirit and deadens the mind, how it shines unwelcome light on the dark corners of the soul.

This, I believe, is where Coppola succeeds: He understands that war wastes all men, and he creates a movie that does the same to us.