Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Dude abides!

Surfacing in my DVR queue last night was PBS' season premiere of their American Masters series -- "Jeff Bridges: The Dude Abides."

We'll get to Jeff in a second, but I first have to say that this series does an amazing job. With this specific film directed by Gail Levin, the use of photography, behind-the-scenes material, clips from past movies, interviews with family, friends and colleagues and the way it is all seamlessly woven together with Jeff's own words makes for a highly enthralling 90 minutes.

Now, to Mr. Bridges ...

If ever there was someone who embodies the word "eclectic," it's Bridges. We can obviously see this in his body of filmwork -- the fact that he played the President of the United States in "The Contender" two years after playing The Dude in "The Big Lebowski" is all that needs to be said about this. And on that topic, one of the "grooviest" parts of this film, for me, is when he makes a surprise visit to a Big Lebowski tribute shop in Greenwich Village.

But the film also showcases his considerable talents off-screen, as a musician, photographer and painter. A few examples:
  • Bridges thought he would take the music route as a kid -- not wanting to go into his father's business right away -- and even wrote a song for the soundtrack of one of his brother Beau's early movies. Lately, Jeff said his role in "Crazy Heart" whetted his musical appetite, so he got a band together, had his agent set up some gigs, and he played at Niagara Falls for a couple of nights, thoroughly enjoying it.
  • He takes behind-the-scenes photos of virtually every movie he works on with a vintage Widelux camera, and makes albums as gifts for the people he works with on the movie. I happened to watch "Seabiscuit" a few nights ago, and there's a very poignant DVD extra featuring Bridges' camera shots that artistically illustrate the collaborative aspect of movie-making.
  • Bridges' talents as a painter and potter are also examined, as he's filmed intensively going to work with paints -- at one point spontaneously representing his family rising from white on a glass background -- and clay -- making a variety of pots and quirky resemblances of heads and faces -- all yet another outlet for his all-encompassing creativity.
Jeff Bridges and his vintage Widelux camera (PBS)
The film also examines Bridges' tendency to be hesitant or reticent in accepting virtually every movie or project that comes his way. He's one "who has to be dragged to the party," and confesses to having a bit of The Dude in him, an admitted laziness at times -- but once he's in, he's all in. It also brushes on his individual relationships with his family, which I found to be quite compelling and moving.

For me, when faced with immensely gifted people like this, who seem to be able to cram so much positive and beneficial work in their lives, it's incredibly inspiring to see all these gifts being used to their maximum potential. It also serves as a pretty jarring wakeup call -- an example of the way we should all get off our asses and live, to get as much as we can out of life by giving as much as we can.

One other thing I realized is how shameful it is that so many of his older films have escaped me. Not "King Kong," though! That flop earns the distinction of likely being the first Jeff Bridges movie I ever saw (and saw again and again for that matter), and -- more importantly -- very well could have led to his ability to explore more offbeat roles as his star appeal was briefly tarnished. Perhaps it is precisely his unassuming nature and propensity for unconventional roles that took me so long to get into his stuff, even though he was nominated for an Academy Award four times before winning with "Crazy Heart."

Consider a line spoken in this film by director Taylor Hackford: "We grew up thinking 'The Actors Studio.' You've got DeNiro, Pacino, Dustin, Brando ... you have all the method people in New York, and they really have the tap on great acting. Here's this guy in California who's this surfer dude. He's absolutely as good as any one of them."

So, yes, while I've seen many of his films by this point, I still have several on the must-see list to right this wrong. And with "Starman," "Cutter's Way," "Against All Odds" and "American Heart" all currently streaming live on Netflix, I'm envisioning a Jeff Bridges winter-day marathon in my near future.

Note: If you missed the program on TV, you can watch it in its entirety online here. Also, for an even more in-depth and intriguing look at his on- and off-screen endeavors, check out Jeff Bridges' official website.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Book review: Bloodroot

It certainly appears I'm about to write up my first so-called book review -- or more likely a glorified recommendation, since I plan to keep this one short.

I just finished "Bloodroot," by Amy Greene -- blowing through it in two sittings (admittedly during a couple of slow work shifts!) -- and I was very surprised at how good this is, considering it's apparently her debut novel. I heard some glowing things about it popping up here and there, but it's so unlike anything I ever read, it took me a while to get to it. But I'm glad I did.

I'm not going to waste a whole lot of time telling what the story's about, because you can find it in detail virtually anywhere, but it's an engaging family saga set in Tennessee's Smoky Mountains and centers around Myra Lamb, who has this mysterious effect on everyone around her. Growing in this mountain range is the bloodroot, a flower that produces a blood-red sap that has the power to both heal and destroy. Yes, there is much symbolism here, but some startling realism as well, amid the pain, poverty and primitive lives that are examined.

What I most like about this story is that it's one of those I've always been drawn to, where an intertwining group of characters progresses over decades -- and it is seamlessly woven through the years by the first-person accounts of these characters, which provides an authentic voice of an area and a people I know virtually nothing about. Although if you've seen "Winter's Bone," (which I really should have written up here at some point) even though that was set in the Ozarks, I found the two stories to have a similar tone.

One personal note: From my experience with this book, I'd recommend not reading ahead to see who helps tell this story, because I found it very cool to see who picks it up as I turn the pages -- this includes a perfectly written epilogue from a surprising character that emotionally and poignantly ties the story off with a, yes, satisfyingly unsatisfying bow ... if you will.

So maybe I'll add some book entries in the future, maybe not, but I felt this is worth a recommendation. It's really a mesmerizing story that tells of the power of home and the ability to rise above some of life's true horrors with love and strength of spirit -- while the lush, earthy descriptions and the haunting (or haunted?) fully developed characters give the story a tangible quality that is very much cinematic in scope and very much comes to life as you turn the pages.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Review: The King's Speech


"What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?" -- George Eliot (via Monica E. Smith)

It's a terrible thing to live in fear. But it's an entirely different thing to not only be unable to keep it private, but to have to face it on the global stage at a critical time in human history -- at which you are being looked to for leadership ... or weakness by your enemies.

This is the unenviable position Prince Albert (or "Bertie" and ultimately King George VI of England) finds himself in at the spectacular climax of "The King's Speech," and while we await what we know is coming, the journey to that point is incredible to watch.

Portrayed to perfection by Colin Firth, Bertie has been afflicted with a seemingly unconquerable stammer virtually all his life -- and after the death of his father, George V (Michael Gambon) and the abdication of his older brother, Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), the agonizingly reluctant Bertie accepts the crown, and does so when England is on the verge of declaring war on Germany, marking the dawn of WWII.

Let me just stop here to recognize Firth's performance, and to say that I can't imagine him not winning the Oscar for this role. From the opening minutes, when Bertie makes his heart-wrenching first speech at Wembley Stadium, Firth conveys every bit the fear, the embarrassment and the horror of being a regal figure with such an impediment, only to hear the mocking reverberations of his own stammer echoing throughout the stadium. Throughout the film, he displays a fully developed character, rich with emotions that also include humor, wit and charm, and we, too, are aware of the hours of preparation that were needed to master the evident technique that succeeds in portraying a realistic and not a hokey or exaggerated stutter.

Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter
But no great movie relies solely on one great character, and we have two outstanding supporting actors to ensure that this is also the case here. Helena Bonham Carter plays Bertie's supporting wife, Elizabeth, who is delightfully peculiar while demonstrating unequivocal love and sympathy for her husband's plight. She has seeked out specialists of all kinds to help her husband, and when none have panned out, she finds another.

This man is Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian-born speech therapist who is also quite eccentric and offers his own unique brand of therapy to the short-tempered Bertie. What's critical here is that he's a "commoner," later we find him to be uncredentialed -- gasp! -- yet he's enlisted to help one who would be king. Lionel proves to Bertie early on that he may indeed be able to help, so the two proceed to have several very good scenes together, laying the foundation for what clearly is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. They work primarily, and colorfully, in Logue's drab home office, but proceed to a memorable sequence at Westminster Abbey as they rehearse for Bertie's coronation -- and Logue is with him to the end, when he delivers his speech that declares war and rallies his people behind him.

And what a flawless scene this is. I don't want to describe it fully, because the true experience lies in watching it play out, but with Elizabeth and Lionel by his side, Bertie's walk to the microphone is akin to one walking to his own execution; the microphone seemingly unveiled as an instrument of torture. And as he prepares to speak, and finally does, we're so emotionally invested in his journey to this point, the courage he's had to show, the myriad of agonizing challenges he's had to overcome -- combined with the support of his wife and the calming, silent coaching of Logue during this historic speech -- that I defy you to hold back your own emotion.

Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush
This qualifies as one of the most inspiring films I've seen, and what continues to astonish me, is that it's another in a countless number of stories based on real life in which some of us seem to be chosen to live lives fraught with hardship, turmoil and quiet desperation. And it never ceases to amaze me that these people rise above it, when others (me!) would have given up ages ago, even as problem after problem mounts and countless setbacks are endured. Here, as prime minister Stanley Baldwin informs Bertie upon his coronation that he's resigning because of the impending war and then stoically tells him that "your greatest test ... is yet to come ..." you wonder how much more the guy can take as he stares blankly ahead, breathing deeply as he contemplates what he's going to have to go through, and that there's no way out.

What I like about this story specifically, is that it acknowledges that we all feel utterly alone at times with our own crosses to bear, our own unique hand that is dealt and our specific role to play. Yet, we are all human beings, equal in that aspect, trying to make our way in this world -- and how often the solutions to our problems seem to be in each other.

Here, a commoner uses his gifts to help a king, so that he, in turn, can fulfill his role. It provides the unmistakable sense that we are all connected, no matter the class system of the day, and that we are meant to freely ask our fellow man for a hand in our lives even as much as we are meant to offer our own.