Janie Jones


Janie Jones

Alessandro Nivola gives Abigail Breslin some lessons in rock star cool.

(2010) Drama (Tribeca) Abigail Breslin, Alessandro Nivola, Elisabeth Shue, Brittany Snow, Peter Stormare, Joel David Moore, Frank Whaley, Frances Fisher, Rodney Eastman, David Lee Smith, Michael Panes, Guy van Swearingen, Jessica Joy. Directed by David M. Rosenthal

 

Reaping what we sow is an American pastime. It is easy when you’re young to go out and have a good time and think yourself consequence-free. Sooner or later though, those pesky repercussions come storming back into our lives, sometimes with devastating effect.

Nowhere is that more prevalent than in the rock star industry. Musicians tour from city to city, often with a groupie at every port. They party, they live for the moment and then their inspiration dries up. That’s exactly what’s happened to Ethan Brand (Nivola), once a promising talent who is on the downward slide of his career. Once a young lion of the alternative rock movement, Brand goes from one dump to another, each one getting progressively dump-ier.

At one such dump-o-rama a groupie named Mary Ann Jones (Shue) makes her way backstage where Ethan and his band – drummer Chuck (Whaley) and bassist Dave (Moore) are celebrating as bands do the end of another successful gig. Mary Ann has had some substance abuse problems and is going off to get clean. However, before she goes she wants to leave her precocious child Janie (Breslin) with her daddy. That would be Ethan.

Ethan and his bandmates react with guffaws. No way they can take it seriously, right? Wrong. While the band is loading out their equipment, Mary Ann moseys, disappearing into the sunset (were it not 2am) and leaving Janie with nowhere to go. Ethan just wants to dump the kid in whatever hellhole they can find but a friendly police officer (Smith) convinces Ethan that the best thing for him to get out of the state un-arrested would be to take the girl on tour with him.

At first Ethan doesn’t want the girl anywhere nearby – a rock tour isn’t anywhere for a 13-year-old girl to be. But a funny thing happens; the two begin to bond over music. Janie has a surprising amount of talent (surprising to Ethan anyway) not only at singing and playing guitar but writing some pretty nifty songs (which were written for the film by Dutch power pop legend Eef Barzalay) which interests Ethan’s manager (Stormare) and the two get closer which irritates Ethan’s girlfriend (Snow).

But Ethan’s got a streak of self-destruction a mile wide. He is often irritable and egotistical; even his bandmates are beginning to weary of his diva-esque attitudes. Fueled by drugs and alcohol, Ethan’s world is spinning into wreckage and the only thing that might save him is a 13-year-old girl.

Fans of films like Crazy Heart will find the territory familiar here. Fading star with demons galore on the rock and roll/country/blue road trying to reconnect with family and finding that connection after a series of disasters. It’s almost like an Afterschool Special version of rock and roll.

Nivola has been the star that wasn’t. He has plenty of charisma and acting chops but he tends to choose material that’s more cerebral than mainstream audiences tend to look into and he lacks the kind of blockbuster to build on that Viggo Mortensen has. You can see it here – not Oscar-winning material to work with necessarily but at least something with a bit of bite to it.

Breslin is simply put one of the greatest juvenile actresses of our time. The kind of depth she puts into Janie is rare in an actress twice her age. Janie is not merely some precocious child who is going to save her dad in spite of himself by the end credits, she is wounded and wary, having been stuck with parents who were far too busy indulging their own needs to worry about those of a young girl. Not many actresses could pull off a role like this without resorting to cliché tricks, let alone one not old enough to get a driver’s license (when it was filmed).

The music (with Breslin and Nivola both singing their own parts) is actually pretty outstanding. It’s a little bit on the folky-rootsy side of adult alternative – a helping heaping of Ryan Adams, a little more Tommy Keene and a dash of Howie Day. It’s got that singer-songwriter vibe that can be a little pretentious but let’s face it – Ethan’s a bit of a jerk and that vibes fits perfectly with his character.

Now, this is kind of a romanticized version of life on the road and quite frankly, it’s beginning to be a bit outdated given the realities of the music business. Still, the grin of a small time tour full of fleabag hotels and cheap fast food grabbed quickly and economically between point A and point B is all here in spirit if not onscreen.

While I’m not sure any self-respecting cop would allow a 13-year-old girl on a rock tour with musicians who may not necessarily be the best of role models stretches credibility a bit far even for a movie, for the most part the movie feels authentic. With some good music and fine performances starting with the two leads, this is really one of those dark horse movies that you wind up going in not knowing much about it and leaving it happy you saw it.

WHY RENT THIS: A cut above these sorts of movies; nice performances throughout. Breslin is outstanding. The music is surprisingly good

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Been there, done that. Stretches credibility.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some drinking and drug usage, a whole lot o’ foul language and a teensy weensy bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Writer-Director Rosenthal based the movie on his own experiences learning at age 30 that he had a 13 year old daughter – in fact, the film is dedicated to her.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6,840 on an unreported production budget; looks like the film was not a winner at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Somewhere

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Six Days of Darkness 2012

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Crazy Heart


Crazy Heart

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jeff Bridges hold each other in a romance that could easily have been a country song...oh yeah, it is.

(Fox Searchlight) Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Colin Farrell’s eyebrows, James Keane, Rick Dial, Jack Nation, Ryan Bingham, Ryil Adamson, J. Michael Oliva, Debrianna Mansini. Directed by Scott Cooper

As humans, we all make mistakes and it is sometimes the case that we pay for those mistakes for a very long time. That we sometimes pay more than we think we owe is part of the human condition and is part of what we all have in common, one of the five universal truths of our existence.

Bad Blake (Bridges) is 57 years old and nearly broke. He was once a bright star in the country music scene, making songs that have retained a certain amount of popularity, enough to keep him on the road going from dive to dive, playing his songs with local musicians backing him in front of audiences ranging from disinterested to star-struck. He is even reduced to playing bowling alleys, where he is not allowed a bar tab but is given, enthusiastically, all the free bowling he desires.

Bad is an alcoholic, a product of too many years on the road, too many disappointments. He is constantly butting heads with his agent (Keane) who clearly has affection towards his client but is just as clearly frustrated with his antics. The drinking has prevented Bad from writing new songs in several years; it has just as surely destroyed most of the relationships in his life. Mostly these days he drifts from one nameless one-night-stand to another, a different drunken encounter with past-their-prime women in each small town he plays in.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico one of the musicians he has been assigned, a proficient keyboard player named Wesley Barnes (Dial) asks Bad if it would be okay if his niece Jean (Gyllenhaal), a writer for the local paper, interviews him. Bad is not real crazy about doing press, but he recognizes that he needs every bit of it he can get so he says yes. There is something about Jean that immediately connects to him. Maybe it’s her vulnerability, her familiarity with the music he grew up with. Maybe it’s just that she has a smoking hot body. Either way, Bad develops a hankering for her, one that leads to romance.

One of Bad’s protégés is Tommy Sweet (Farrell), who once played in Bad’s backup band and has since broken away to become one of the biggest stars in country music. The two have had a falling-out since then, with Bad seemingly resentful of Tommy’s success, but still maintaining a grudging admiration for the man. For Tommy’s part, he is certainly aware of Bad’s role in his career and is willing to help, even if his record company isn’t so keen on the idea. Tommy arranges for Bad to open for him in Phoenix, giving the road-weary legend renewed exposure to the big time.

On the way back from Phoenix Bad decides to stop back in Santa Fe and visit Jean and her four-year-old son Buddy (Nation) who has bonded with Bad, but on the way there he falls asleep at the wheel – very likely because he’s had too much to drink – and crashes his truck. He wakes up in a Santa Fe hospital with a broken ankle and a concussion. He is in no condition to drive back home to Houston, so he convalesces with Jean. He begins to experience a sense of what it’s like to be part of a family, the kind of life he gave up, along with a son who is now grown and that he hasn’t seen since he was Buddy’s age.

However, Jean is disturbed by Bad’s excessive drinking and smoking, and asks him to tone it down around Buddy. Bad, ever-cheerful, promises to do so but he has a hard time doing it. As he is getting ready to head back home, his agent calls with the news that he has signed a contract to do some song-writing for Tommy Sweet. This could mean some real money, the first in a long time for Bad. After a tender good-bye, he drives home to Houston.

He is welcomed home by his friend Wayne (Duvall), the owner of a bar that he plays in from time to time. Inspired by his relationship with Jean, Bad begins writing some of the best songs of his career and invites Jean to visit him in Houston with Buddy. Can Bad really make a go at it this late in the game, or will his vices come boiling up to the surface with another installment payment on his sins due?

Jeff Bridges has emerged as the favorite (and, having never won one despite three nominations, the sentimental favorite as well) to win the Best Actor Oscar and with as much certainty as one can ever predict such things, will do so. We’ve seen the broken-down drunk country singer in countless movies and CMT music videos; in Bridges, we believe it. We see him seemingly hit bottom only to find a way to descend even further. He means well, and he’s not really a bad guy, he’s just possessed by the bottle.

The surprise is that Gyllenhaal emerges with a performance which stands up to Bridges. She is given the role of a much younger woman falling for a man that on the surface there is no reason for her to fall for. He stinks of cigarettes and booze, is clearly not the best-looking rider in the rodeo and can only be counted upon to mess up. Still, she manages to make us believe that the romance which is at the core of the movie is real and believable, even if we can’t quite see how it is happening.

The temptation here would have been to use music that had some pop potential, cranked out by slick Nashville songwriters or Hollywood pop producers. Instead, the filmmakers enlisted T-Bone Burnett, a producer/songwriter/performer who has never hit it really big but is well-respected within the music industry. He has managed to craft songs that have elements of Leonard Cohen, Waylon Jennings, John Hiatt and even a little bit of Ryan Adams in them. The soundtrack is truly incredible, equal parts country, blues and rock. Bridges and Farrell sing their own parts (including a duet) and they do a credible job, Bridges’ gravelly road-weary voice sounding exactly what you would think a whiskey and cigarette-roughened throat would produce. It’s quite simply one of the better film soundtracks ever.

As someone who has spent enough time in bars and clubs in my days as a rock critic, I can vouch for the authenticity of the movie. I’ve been to shows where performers from days gone by come in all their faded glory to play for an audience looking to recapture their youth for just a few hours, balanced out with a select few who merely want to touch something magical while its still there. It is an environment of desperation and determined battle against the demons of drink and age. You can almost smell the roadhouse perfume of stale beer and tobacco, with a vague whiff of vomit permeating the movie. This would certainly have made the top half of my Years Best list had I seen it during 2009; I may wind up granting it an exception to appear on my 2010 list because it deserves to be lauded.

Every so often a movie comes along that just grabs your imagination and holds it, and the result is that you experience a kind of magic that changes you or at least your perception. While Crazy Heart has a few cliches in its genetic makeup, it still accomplishes that magic that occurs when the performances, filmmaking and music all come together in a perfect blend. This is Bad Blake’s journey and while it isn’t an easy one, it is a compelling ride to be sure.

REASONS TO GO: Bridges gives the performance of a lifetime, and Gyllenhaal a powerful turn that nicely offsets his. The music for this movie is wonderful and the soundtrack worth seeking out.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot occasionally veers into territory that has been well-mined in the past, and it is never clear why Jean falls for him in the first place.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is rather blue here, and there’s some sexuality, but more than that there is a lot of drinking (and the consequences of it) and smoking. Probably a little rough for the younger ones, but mature teens should be okay with this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The big Phoenix concert scenes were filmed between sets at a Toby Keith concert. Keith is thanked in the credits.

HOME OR THEATER: While much of the movie is small and intimate, nonetheless the concert sequences work better on a bigger screen.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: English as a Second Language

New Releases for the Week of January 29, 2010


January 29, 2010

Mel Gibson fields one too many questions from the press about the DUI incident of a few years ago.

EDGE OF DARKNESS

(Warner Brothers) Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Shawn Roberts, Bojana Novakovic, Frank Grillo, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Jay O. Sanders, Denis O’Hare. Directed by Martin Campbell

Rough-hewn Boston homicide detective Thomas Craven witnesses the murder of his daughter on his very doorstep. At first, it is assumed that he was the intended target but he quickly comes to believe that those suspicions are erroneous. To find out the truth about his daughter’s death he must first discover the truth about her secret life, and that involves a journey into corporate cover-ups and governmental collusion. As the bodies begin to pile up, he is aided by a shadowy agent whose motives may or may not have Craven’s best interest in mind. Of course, those folks responsible for the mayhem should have learned from the British – you don’t mess with Mel’s kinfolk and expect to survive.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for strong bloody violence and language)

Crazy Heart

(Fox Searchlight) Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall, Sarah Jane Morris. A broken-down country singer by the name of Bad Blake who has had a run of luck that befits his name encounters a young journalist who re-inspires him. It looks like Blake might find the success that has eluded him for so long but he has been his own worst enemy all his life and could torpedo his chances yet again. Bridges has already garnered a Golden Globe and SAG award for his work here and is the odds-on favorite for the Best Actor Oscar come March.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for language and brief sexuality)

The Messenger

(Oscilloscope Laboratories) Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone. An army officer just back from a tour of Iraq is assigned to the Casualty Notification office to inform loved ones of fallen soldiers. He is partnered with a veteran of the office who shows him the proper way to break the terrible news. He also falls for one of the women he has informed of their husband’s death, causing him to lose his emotional detachment and just perhaps helping him to heal from his own wounds. This powerful independent film has attracted notice on the Awards front, particularly for Harrison who has been nominated for a Supporting Actor award for both the Golden Globes and the SAGs.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for language and some sexual content/nudity)

When In Rome

(Touchstone) Kristen Bell, Josh Duhamel, Will Arnett, Dax Shepard. An ambitious and successful New York woman goes to Rome for her sister’s wedding. Disillusioned by romance in general and her own romantic choices in particular, she decides on a whim to pluck coins from a magic fountain that brings love to whoever tosses coins into it. She discovers, to her horror, that she is being pursued by the men who had tossed the coins into the fountain. When she is also pursued by a handsome reporter whom she has developed feelings for, she is worried that his feelings were generated by the magic of the fountain rather than being genuine. How much do you want to bet that the two wind up together at the end of the movie?

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for some suggestive content)