Friday, January 8, 2010

Singin' the Praises of CRAZY HEART ... plus: The Simpsons, Modern Family, and MORE!

Man, a crazy couple of days here in the world of entertainment. As usual, I'm sitting somewhat in the eye of the storm, which is both fun yet oddly stressful at times. But hey, if all the late-night wars do is get me one step closer towards The Tonight Show With Danny Baram, then hey, I'll take it. All kidding aside, you've sort of got to love it - there are big egos and temper tantrums aplenty here in Hollywood, but one thing you've got to admit ... it's never boring.

Anyways, it's been a while since I've talked about TV stuff. New episodes are slowly starting to trickle out as the nets gear up for their big midseason launches. It's going to be TV overload in the next few weeks though. Lost, 24, and Chuck will all be back, and, dammit, there goes my free time.

- So let's talk THE SIMPSONS. Prior to the holidays, the venerable animation insititution had been in a pretty big slump, in my opinion. There had been some good episodes back in the Fall to kick off the season, but soon afterwords, the show really slipped into the creative doldrums. With that in mind, I really dug this past week's ep. I liked the premise - a Tuesdays With Morie-like setup in which a writer takes an interest in documenting all of Grandpa Simpson's rambling, old-timey stories. Some of my all-time favorite Simpsons jokes have been generated by Grandpa's senile storytelling, so I got a kick out of all his tall tales, shown in flashback form. The humor just felt really sharp in this ep, and I was laughing more than I have in many months while watching The Simpsons. In fact, the Homer-Grandpa relationship was given just enough genuine emotion to draw comparisons to, dare I say it, classic eps of The Simpsons. It's been a long time since I both really laughed at and felt emotionally invested in a Simpsons episode, and man, it was good to have that feeling back. Keep it up!

My Grade: A-

- And ... wow, FAMILY GUY was actually pretty funny as well, probably the best overall episode in a few months. Not a *great* ep, per se, but definitely had me laughing more so than usual. The Peter-gets-Amnesia storyline was played so over-the-top that you had to crack up a bit at some of the goofiness. And Peter's memory-jolting encounter with the angry chicken sort of cracked me up ("good thing he hit me an odd number of times!"). The ep got kind of lame towards the end when Quagmire actually successfully seduces Lois (really?), but overall the humor seemed a lot sharper (and less flashback-reliant) than it has in a while. And that Family Feud opening was also pretty funny. It's hard to go wrong, says I, with Family Feud-based humor.

My Grade: B+

- I thought THE CLEVELAND SHOW from this past Sunday was only okay, but I will give it credit for having one of the single funniest gags I've seen in a while. There was one absurdly overextended bit where Cleveland pulls into a gas-station restroom that, for whatever reason, just had me bowled over (pun intended) in laughter. Otherwise, the main plotline was decent, with Cleveland restarting his old school's baseball team, and then unsuccesfully trying to get Cleveland Jr. to fill his old shoes as a baseball slugger. It felt a bit too King of the Hill-ish, and the usually funny Cleveland Jr. didn't really get off too many great lines or gags.

My Grade: B

- Meanwhile, it was great to see MODERN FAMILY back with a new episode on Wednesday. The best new show of 2009 came back with a very funny episode that saw Phil take a trip to the hospital due to a kidney stone. Phil's interactions with his kids were really hilarious ("don't talk black"), and so was his taking the opportunity of his illness to get his wife to admit to flirting with the firemen who took him to the hospital. Phil's musings about how best to cash in his "golden ticket" were really funny - "a robot ... with feelings...". Awesome. The other two storylines were also really funny, with an unlikely friendship between Manny's carefree dad and Jay, and then Mitchell and Cameron arguing over how best to deal with their baby's crying. I don't know if this ep had quite the laugh ratio of some of the series' best episodes, but, still, it was great to have Modern Family back.

My Grade: B+

- Okay, it's been in the works for a while now, but here's a review of one of 2009's dark horse Oscar contender's, Crazy Heart ...


- It's time to rearrange your Oscar ballots, because although it sort of snuck in under the radar, Crazy Heart is up there with the best films of 2009.

Crazy Heart tells the story of the once-legendary country music singer Bad Blake. In his day, Blake was rich, famous, and selling out large arenas. He influenced a newer generation of country music stars, including his protege, and current best-selling mega-artist Tommy Sweet. But Blake is pushing 60. He's older, less popular, and goes from town to town playing small bars and clubs in front of meager crowds of aging fans. His personal life is in shambles as well. Married and divorced several times, Blake drowns his sorrows and his loneliness in booze. Lots of it. In fact, he's an alcoholic who has a hard time going for more than a few hours without a drink. But one day, Blake is interviewed by a small-town music journalist as a favor to a bandmate. The woman is thirty years younger than Blake, and she's a single mother with a young son. She's been burned by men before, and knows better than to fall for a guy like Blake. But she does, and he falls for her. And so Crazy Heart is about a washed-up guy who used to be a big deal, trying to get that old spark back. An old cowboy trying and stumbling to walk along the road to redemption. The story itself is practically a country music song. And in other hands, it could have been generic or cliche or boring. But Crazy Heart is an amazing movie. Let me talk about why.

First and foremost, Jeff Bridges is phenomenal as Bad Blake. Bridges has long been one of the best actors around. He fully transforms into his characters, and creates all kinds of little nuances that make them feel real and alive. But he keeps things down to earth. Even when he's playing an over-the-top character like The Dude, there's an authenticity to Bridges that translates to the characters that he plays. But Bad Blake may be Bridges' greatest role. Bad is funny and likable, but also a dark and troubled character. There's that usual Bridges charisma and easy-going nature to Bad, but he's also a gritty character with a lot of facets. A lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what have you's ... as a great man once said. Bridges deserves an Oscar nom for this role, no question. It's similar territory to Mickey Rourke's role in The Wrestler. I would give Rourke the slight edge for the sheer rawness of Randy the Ram, but Bridges here is up there.

The rest of the cast is also excellent. Maggie Gyllenhaal, as Jean, the plucky writer who falls for Bad, is really good. I'd go so far as to say it's up there with her best roles to date. As the movie goes on, there's an increasing nuance to her character. Her romance with Bad isn't cut and dried. There are a lot of bumps in the road and up until the movie's end, you're not sure where it will end up. And I really liked that about the movie in general. The character arcs are nuanced and complex. The movie is dramatic and involving without being *melodramatic* or relying on out-of-nowhere twists. That restraint applies to some of the interesting supporting turns in Crazy Heart. Like Robert Duvall as an old pal of Blake's. His character is supportive but also concerned. His fishin'-buddy relationship with Blake feels real, feels believable. It's subtle but effective work from the great Duvall. Collin Farrell is really good here as well as country megastar Tommy Sweet. Again, a lesser movie might have created an overblown feud between Sweet and Blake, but not this one. There is jealousy and resentment between them, but also respect and comraderie. Another complex and nuanced relationship. If only more movies could have that kind of sophistication.

One thing about a movie like this: the music has got to live up to the characters. Crazy Heart is filled with original country songs, and most are really great. And that's coming from someone who generally dislikes country music. But even I could appreciate that in the context of the film, the songs work perfectly. I could appreciate how easily Jeff Bridges, a musician himself, sells the songs as country classics, and as key pieces of Bad Blake's storied career. I may not really be a country music fan, but I can appreciate the bluesy storytelling of a great country song, and the weary cowboy stories of a country singer with too many hours logged on the open road. Crazy Heart embodies that image. It's a sad story but also inspirational at times. It's larger than life, but also grounded. It's a story we've seen many times before. There are thematic similarities to The Wrestler and other such films, and once in a while you do start to feel that things are getting a touch derivative. But the writing is sharp, the direction is well-done, and Bridges makes it all work better than anyone else could have.

So I hope that a lot of people will go out and see Crazy Heart, and that Bridges will get the respect he deserves for yet another iconic role. The Dude may abide, but Bad Blake is an equally cool character for the ages.

My Grade: A-

- And that's all I've got for now. Stay tuned for a few more Best of 2009 posts, coming soon - and have a great weekend.

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