Friday, January 15, 2010

A shortened screener season

On Monday, I bemoaned the fact that if you want to see movies released in December in time for your year-end list, you have to pay theatrical prices.

There's actually a second way: Go visit your friend who's in the Writers Guild, and cadge as many of his screeners as you can.

Last year was particularly fruitful in this regard, setting me up with some unrealistic hopes for this year. Not only did I watch Doubt with my friend Phil at his place, but I came away with The Wrestler, Burn After Reading and Changeling, all of which he'd already seen. I also took home Doubt so my wife could watch it, which meant I left the premises four screeners richer. Since sharing screeners is strictly prohibited -- you are actually supposed to destroy them after you watch them -- I have changed Phil's name to protect his identity, though they'll have to figure out my identity first if they want to get to him. (The Wrestler ended up being my favorite film of last year, making it only my second top-ranked film that I didn't see in the theater, the first since Run Lola Run in 1999.)

What happened last year, however, was a fortuitous set of circumstances made possible by the fact that I hung out with Phil a week before Christmas. It was soon enough after he started receiving his screeners that he wasn't yet ready to send them in bulk to his cinephile mother, but not so soon that he hadn't already gone through a good number of them, leaving some available to borrow.

But when you get together almost a month later on the calendar, and the cinematic care package to Phil's mother is just days away from being shipped, you have to adjust your expectations a bit. And so it was last night that I reverted to the conditions established in 2007, when I first watched one of Phil's screeners (The Savages) and then just went on my merry way. That's probably just as well, because I don't want my desire to see movies to outweigh my sense of propriety, and put Phil in a situation of stress. Loaning things to people is always a bit stressful -- not only do you have to worry about when you'll get them back, but you also have to worry about them coming back in one piece. (I should know -- he still has two favorite movies I loaned him, and he says they're packed away in boxes somewhere after their move.)

When it comes to screeners, "I'm just happy to be here," as ballplayers up from the minors are fond of saying. I'll take whatever I can get. And last night, whatever I can get was Scott Cooper's Crazy Heart, which has won kudos for Jeff Bridges' lead performance as a broken down country singer. Phil and his fiancee had not yet seen it, so my wife and I joined them on their couch for a viewing over Thai noodles.

And just let me say: I'm glad I didn't pay theatrical prices for this one. Especially since a theatrical viewing would have prevented the snide commentary we established upon realizing it wasn't working for any of us. You know, it's that moment when one person makes a snarky remark, and everyone else laughs a bit too heartily, relieved that the others are similarly displeased. Then you're home free.

Crazy Heart falls into a distinct category of films, of which we've seen quite a few over the last decade, in which a lead performance gets resoundingly praised, and either the performance or the praise itself dwarfs the rest of the movie. With many of these films, the actor in question ended up winning an Oscar. I'm thinking of films like Monster's Ball (Halle Berry), Monster (Charlize Theron) and Boys Don't Cry (Hilary Swank). Lest you think I can only think of examples involving actresses, The Wrestler might have been thought of as a movie like that if a) Mickey Rourke had won the Oscar like he should have, and b) the movie weren't half as good as it is.

Crazy Heart actually has a number of other surface similarities to The Wrestler -- past-his-prime performer tries to make an undignified buck or two while fighting health issues -- but there's no comparison between the two in terms of quality. Bridges' performance is not even all that good, or at least not compared to his own usually high standards. Whatever you think of Bridges -- a friend of mine alternately calls him "Old Mush Mouth" and "Old Marble Mouth" because of the way he tends to garble his dialogue -- there's no doubt that he usually presents as real, even when playing a fantastical character like his peace-loving military zen master in The Men Who Stare at Goats. So if you're using the standard of how good a performer is compared to that performer's usual work, then Bridges' work here is nothing special. In fact, he sometimes seems to be relying on some showy actorly crutches, one of which I described here in the specific context of smoking cigarettes. Not only does Bridges smoke ostentatiously in Crazy Heart, but he loves any opportunity to eat while speaking his lines, or leave his mouth agape, as both of these seem to him to penetrate to the core of his character. It's a pretty good performance, but any time you notice the tricks an actor is using to manipulate you, it's hard to un-notice them.

The biggest problem with Crazy Heart -- and this post was not meant to be an actual review of Crazy Heart, so I'll wrap up -- is that the narrative is surprisingly light on conflict. His supposed rival (played by Colin Farrel in an unusual casting choice) seems to be an eminently nice guy, and there are few consequences to the bad behavior by the aptly named Bad Blake. That was one of the primary sources of disbelief discussed during our running commentary, how things for this "sad sack" were not nearly as sad as they seemed like they were supposed to be. Add in a patently false performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal, in which she can't decide from scene to scene whether she loves or hates Blake (but without anything in the script dictating these emotional fluctuations), and you have a movie that left us laughing -- often at our own jokes and comments -- rather than feeling Blake's pain.

I say there was no cost to watching Crazy Heart, but I did pay for it slightly -- in personal guilt. I know Phil doesn't care if we watch his screeners with him, and probably would have let me borrow a couple of them had I gotten there a couple weeks earlier. And the four of us had been intending to get together for months, so it's not like this was an inorganic gathering that I'd forced on the schedule. However, I did make a joke in an email last week about this being the time of year I needed to "use him for his screeners," and the get-together did spring more or less directly out of that comment. We like them very much and wanted to see them anyway, but I didn't like my own motivations behind scheduling the gathering for when I did.

And so I did the noble thing, leaving on the table a chance to grab one additional screener. In discussing the titles they had seen and would soon be shipping to his mother -- some of which I'd seen, some of which struck me as golden opportunities sadly missed -- I noticed him mentioning the Coen brothers' A Serious Man. He said in this case his mother had actually recommended it to him, and later the screener arrived. I doubted he'd be sending it to her to watch again. So I probably could have left with it, had I asked.

But I let it go. My 2009 rankings will close without that particular title, and no one will be the wiser.

Besides, I have to keep hidden some of the inner workings of my film-obsessed mind, because there will be more screeners to watch at the end of 2010. (And I'm glad on a day like today that Phil never reads my blog.) I have to avoid suspicion when conveniently setting up a time to see Phil next December ...

... maybe a week or so before Christmas.

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