Feb 27, 2010

Review Post 66: The Crazies [2010] / Crazy Heart

DIR: Breck Eisner
CAST: Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell,
Joe Anderson, Danielle Panabaker

I haven’t seen George A. Romero’s original version of The Crazies (the third of his films, to date, to get an official remake following the first two entries in his Dead series), so I can’t compare Breck Eisner’s unfussily efficient remake to its source, perhaps that’s a good thing though, because it forces me to look at The Crazies purely on its own limited merits.

To give Eisner (son of longtime Disney head Michael) his due, he does pull out several effective moments; a scarily atmospheric shot here (such as that of a woman dwarfed by a running combine harvester, or a garden fork being dragged along the floor), a thrilling scare sequence there (a car wash scene is pretty unnerving, and beautifully paced) and even a genuinely creepy downbeat ending that runs against the established Hollywood grain, but for each of these directorial hits there are half a dozen misses.

The biggest is simply that Eisner never stamps any identity on this film; any one of the directors who have been tasked to churn out the endless amount of horror remakes that Hollywood has been producing over the past five years could have made The Crazies. It’s a shiny, glossy, and ultimately rather soulless film, even Eisner’s best shots don’t feel like they could only belong to this story, or this filmmaker, it’s all just there.

Most of the other problems with this film begin not with the direction but with the screenplay by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright. There is a gaping hole at the centre of this film where its characters ought to be. The Crazies has no characters, just shells that walk around talking occasionally. Radha Mitchell suffers most, she’s a capable actress, but here she’s reduced to merely looking pretty (which she does well) and waiting to be saved. I hope she bought something nice with her wages. Her character is a doctor, and pregnant, but neither of these things has any real purpose in the film; instead the sense is that the character needed a job and the screenwriters’ dart happened to hit the card saying Doctor.

Timothy Olyphant has just as little to do, despite being the lead as Mitchell’s small town sheriff husband, who, along with his wife, his deputy (Anderson) and his wife’s teenage receptionist (Panabaker) attempts to escape when a mysterious disease outbreak results in their small town being wiped off the map by the Government. However, Olyphant is effective, giving a charismatic, Bill Paxton-ish, performance that suggests that if his character had anything resembling a personality he might prove a solid actor. In support, British actor Joe Anderson does a creditable American accent, and gives a decent performance despite a one note character, but Danielle Panabaker all but vanishes into the background, giving a performance that is as much a non-entity as her character.

It is, perhaps, churlish, to complain about lapses of logic in what is, in essence and feel if not in fact, a zombie movie, but there are holes here that one could drive a truck through. The most glaring are to do with the infection, and how it spreads (hmmm, might this have been a good use of the doctor character, do you think?) We’re never really sure how it spreads, how infectious it is, and the incubation period, though defined late in the day, seems motivated by dramatic requirements. The glaring error would seem to be that, at one point, Olyphant is clearly exposed to infected blood, essentially pouring it into a cut on his body, a fact that goes curiously unacknowledged (even by the DOCTOR).

The perfunctory screenplay, the mixed performances, the unimaginative and resolutely adequate direction, the fact that nobody has any character to speak of, these are all problems, but they are all amplified by the fact that The Crazies is just no fun. In fact it’s dull, a tedious collection of workaday horror clichés that never knit together into a satisfying story. There are no stakes here, because we don’t care about the ciphers at the centre of the film, and more than once, even during some of the film’s more action packed moments, I felt myself begin to nod off. Three or four effective moments, and a couple of better than deserved performances are all well and good, but they can’t lift The Crazies beyond being future bargain bin fodder for the most undiscerning horror fans.

DIR: Scott Cooper
CAST: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal,
Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell

I was always likely to like Crazy Heart, after all, it features three things of which I’m extremely fond; Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal and great music. In many ways Crazy Heart is, as a film, much as its main character; alcoholic, washed up country singer Bad Blake (Bridges) is as a person. It’s a little baggy, carrying some extra weight, it’s rough around the edges and sometimes a little caustic and it does some hopelessly cliché things along the way. However, it also possesses passion and a great deal of charm, which provide just enough smooth to take the rough with.

Jeff Bridges is nominated for an Oscar for the fifth time for his work here, and he’s going to win. It’s not an undeserved honour, and yet, this isn’t his best work. As Bad Blake, Bridges is brilliant; he really sucks us into this guy and makes him likeable against all the odds. He’s perhaps especially good in the scenes with Maggie Gyllenhaal’s single mother Jean and her four-year-old son Buddy. In these scenes we see Blake come to life, and perhaps for a moment we see the man who lies behind that alcoholic fug he’s spent most his life in. The only thing is that, occasionally, usually when Blake is at his most inebriated, Bridges’ performance smacks of effort. Just every now and then Blake goes away and is replaced by Jeff Bridges giving a really good performance. It’s strong work, but not quite as complete a creation as, say, The Dude.

Certainly Bridges is one of the things that lifts Crazy Heart out of the ordinary, which is where the rather hackneyed and signposted screenplay by director Scott Cooper would otherwise have landed it. The writing is strictly by the numbers redemptive stuff, it’s fine as far as it goes, and the dialogue is nicely written, but we’ve seen this movie a hundred times before (though it’s usually a biopic).

Maggie Gyllenhaal is one of the warmest and most enjoyable actresses out there at the moment, but what’s striking is how organic her work is. There’s none of the forced perkiness that can mark the performances of some actresses who are striving for warmth, and there also seems to be a total lack of vanity. She’s absolutely convincing as a single mother trying to hold her life together, and do it with good humour. She’s also got good chemistry with Bridges, which allows them to get over the implausibility of this sweet, attractive, woman in her early 30’s taking up with the alcoholic, slightly overweight and almost three decades older Blake.

In a smaller part, as a protégé who has now overtaken Blake, Colin Farrell does some nicely understated work, and reveals an unexpectedly strong singing voice. The music, by T Bone Burnett, is the heart and soul of this film, and if it had fallen flat it would have taken the whole movie with it. At one point Blake observes of songs “that’s how it is with the good ones, you feel like you know them, even if you don’t”. That’s sentiment that applies to all of this film’s songs. Bad’s music is stirring, and brilliantly performed by Bridges, whose voice may not have widest range, but is full of expression, in which you can hear the last twenty years of Bad’s life inform his performances.

Without Bridges, without Gyllenhaal and without its songs, Crazy Heart would be a deeply ordinary movie, and in some ways it remains so, but there is enough of quality here to overcome the overfamiliarity of the writing and to make the film well worth recommending as a whole.

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