The Parnassus Times

April 30, 2008

The List is Life: #79

79.

The Dame;

Marcia Gay Harden.

Marcia Gay Harden landed her first major film role in 1990 as the leading lady in the Coen bros. throwback gangster picture, Miller’s Crossing, yet it would not be until another decade passed that her career would be able to really take off. Working through the latter half of the 90s in supporting roles on feature films of varying sizes, it was in 2000 when she appeared alongside such lumanaries as Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner in Clint Eastwood’s box office hit, Space Cowboys and then went on to star alongside Ed Harris in the biopic, Pollock, the film recieved a fair deal of acclaim, but the cherry on top came when Harden walked away with the Academy Award in early 2001. Since then, knowing what she was best suited to, Harden has continued to work steadily in prjects of various sizes and differing types, taking supporting roles in films such as Mona Lisa Smile, Mystic River, American Dreamz, The Dead Girl, Into the Wild, and The Mist. She continues to almost always be among the standouts in the cast, if not stealing movies altogether, though the films are often of differeing qualities, her presence is almost always an assurance of at least some quality.

The Duke;

John Wayne.

The Iowan born son of a pharmacist, few would have predicted that the boy named Marion Morrison would ever have emerged as the towering symbol of masculinity in the 20th century. Yet since his first major role in John Ford’s Stagecoach, the man that came to be known as John Wayne blazed a trail as one of the most iconic stars in the history of the Hollywood horizon, across the next 40 years. Though appearing in projects as varying as The Quiet Man, The Barbarian and the Geisha and The Green Berets, it was of course in the old west that the legend of The Duke was forged. Standing for a brand of rugged, towering heroism, from Stagecoach in 1939 to his final melancholy appearance as a legendary dying gunslinger in 1976’s The Shootist, Wayne stood tall against all comers, never backing down an inch. Yet perhaps his most interesting, daring work came in films like Red River and The Searchers, films in which that heroism was mixed with something far darker, Wayne was never afraid to delve into the dark side, never afraid to display the cracks in his myth. He was a symbol of the kind of man that became eclipsed in the movies at the tail end of the 60s, by the emerging new wave of filmmakers, yet even as Midnight Cowboy (as potent a symbol of the changing face of masculinity as there ever was) walked away with the 1969 Oscar for Best Picture, it was The Duke that landed the Best Actor prize that night, for his turn in True Grit. Even as his era disappeared, John Wayne stood tall.

The Director;

Michael Winterbottom.

Michael Winterbottom is one of the most unique and varied directors of his generation, he made his debut in 1995 with the vivid, bleak Butterfly Kiss and quickly established his kinetic visual sense, and naturalistic style. Though the film failed to reach a wide audience, his follow up, Go Now, made in the same year, reached a much wider audience, including a cinematic release (albeit 3 years later) in the United States. Following that initial breakthrough he has continued to prove himself as one of the most diverse filmmakers working today, from his 1996, Kate Winslet starring adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, to his filmed on location, powerful journalistic drama, Welcome to Sarajevo, his 2002 double header with the dramatic-comic chronicling of the Manchester music scene in the early 80s, 24 Hour Party People, and brutally real refugee smuggling drama In This World, the artistic-pornography of Nine Songs, avant-garde comedic stylings of A Cock and Bull Story or the much talked about tale of perseverance, love and humanity, A Mighty Heart. Michael Winterbottom has been all over the world, in all genres, from the perfectly normal to the entirely surreal, he is one of a kind, an ambitious artist, and one who shows no signs of watering down or selling out, no matter how much acclaim and attention he may recieve.

The Picture;

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)

In the 1940s, Film noir dominated the Hollywood scene, hard bitten detectives, skulking in the shadows, dark and shady businessmen causing nothing but trouble and women all around, you were never quite sure you could trust. As the television rose to prominence, Hollywod was forced to step up, to become far more grand and epic than it had even been before, and thus those small scale pictures faded away. Yet in 1974, up and coming producer Robert Evans, emerging new-wave writer Robert Towne, and director Roman Polanski, the master chronicler of twisted cinematic horror, combined, and along with the fast rising star Jack Nicholson, put together a neo-noir tale that not only resurrected the genre, but took it to a level that it had never been before. Prior to his first icon-making Oscar win for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nicholson is on restrained form, caressing every line of Towne’s perfectly crafted screenplay, that now famous grin is nowhere to be seen, as the knowing glint in his eye and the sardonic delivery draw us in and attach us to his quiet charisma, taking us into that dark world in which he delves. Polanski’s control over the whole thing shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that has seen the great man at his best, but this was in an arena he had never entered in to. He holds a very calm, still and simple view on everything that goes on, allowing that story to unfold naturally, leaving the work to his cast and that screenplay, and what a screenplay it is. Composed with delicate nuance, Robert Towne’s words do very little by themselves, but as the big picture begins to come together, the little moments, the seemingly throwaway lines, the tiny details one may consider unimportant all begin to make perfect sense. From head to toe, Chinatown is a perfectly put together piece of work, a towering beacon of its genre, one of the greatest of its era.

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April 9, 2008

The List is Life: #84

84.

The Dame;

Emmanuelle Beart.

Emmanuelle Beart came to the worlds attention in 1986 when she played the title role in Claude Berri’s sequel to his own Jean de Florette, Manon de Sources. Aged just 23, the French film industry bestowed upon her the Cesar award for Best Supporting Actress, with what was her third nomination. Though going on to pick up 5 more Cesar nominations, for Jacques Rivette’s grand 4 hour marvel La Belle Noiseusse and perhaps most notably to western audiences opposite Michel Serrault in the intimate Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud. The following year she made up part of the ensemble in her only journey to date into English language films, opposite Tom Cruise in Brian DePalma’s Mission: Impossible and a few years later, made up part of a mighty gallic ensemble as one of Francois Ozon’s 8 Femmes. Though mightily established as a more than accomplished actress, Beart’s finest achievement may well be when in 2003, aged 40, she appeared nude on the cover of Elle magazine, the issue is to date, the biggest selling in the magazine’s history. Proof, if any were needed, that the great queens of the cinema, tower over all else when it comes to glamour, charm, grace and popularity.

The Dude;

Ray Winstone.

Landing the lead role in Alan Clarke’s Scum at the age of 20, Ray Winstone could have risen to stardom at a very young age, yet marred by constroversy, Scum’s planned broadcast on the BBC was withdrawn and the television story was entirely refilmed for the cinema and finally released 2 years later in 1979, but the road that Ray Winstone’s career would travel down was set. Throughout the 80s his career never really got off the small screen, his most notable role probably as Will Scarlet in the television production, Robin of Sherwood. Into the 90s and his career still seemed forged by TV work before in 1997 he landed the lead as the dark, troubled, vicious father in Gary Oldman’s semi-autobiographical domestic drama Nil by Mouth, landing a BAFTA nomination and British Independent Film award, the boy from Hackney’s star began to rise, and two years later as he again took the dark father role in another british actor-turned-director drama Tim Roth’s The War Zone. Further British Independent and European Film Award nominations further established himself as one of the most powerful talents in the nation. It would be 4 more years before his star would rise further though, first taking on the lead role in another British TV production of Henry VIII and then going onto star as part of a glittering ensemble as the subtly venemous Teague in Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain, over the next few years, further show stealing roles in King Arthur and The Proposition followed, a lead in his own big budget movie soon followed in the (albeit motion captured) epic Beowulf. Though perhaps most impressively of all are a pair of supporting roles in 2006 alongsie Jack Nicholson in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar winning The Departed and in the summer of 2008 alongside in Harrison Ford as Steven Spielberg brings Indiana Jones back to the screen. Now 50, Ray Winstone has established himself as major film actor, the premier British hard man on screen, and most impressively of all, in an age of Brits abandoning home for Hollywood as soon as the chance presents itself, he’s one who never forgets where he came from.

The Director;

Wong Kar-Wai.

One of the most visually unique and highly stylized film directors in the whole history of the business, it would be no surprise to anyone to learn that Wong Kar-Wai is a graphic design graduate. He began working in film in his late 20s as a screenwriter turning out about 10 screenplays over the next 5 years befoire in 1988 turning to direction with Wong gok ka Moon (As Tears Go By) a virtual reworking of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets starring Andy Lau and longtime collaborator Maggie Cheung. Already putting on display the vivid color palette he would become known for and landing what is to date, his only box office hit. 3 years later A Fei Zheng Chuan (Days of Being Wild) set his style in stone, a beautifully wonderous mood piece filled with luscious visuals and music. In the decade and a half since he has gone on to establish himself as one of the most respected filmmakers in the world and with 2007’s My Blueberry Nights, stepped into the west, directing his first English language film. The six films he turned out between these two, including the Palme D’Or winning Chun Gwong Cha Sit (Happy Together) are the hallmarks of one of the great auteurs in modern cinema, with his two closest stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung helping to blaze that trail, he is a filmmaker that shall surely continue to unleash his unique blend of hypnotic cinema upon adoring arthouse audiences worldwide, ensuring that one of the great visual artists of the era, won’t soon be forgotten.

The Picture;

Mononoke-Hime (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997)

Hayao Miyazaki is a filmmaker that from the beginning of his career, has shown a great deal of love and respect for the natural world, never was that passionate feeling more on display than in his 1997 fantasy-adventure, Mononoke-Hime (Princess Mononoke). Epic in scope, grand in ambition, it is a film that deals with the struggles of humanity, the struggles of the natural world, of animals far grander than humans can comprehend and of the mighty Gods that loom over all. At the heart of all this monumental majesty there lies humble humanity, this is the story of a young man in search for a cure for a deadly disease, and how on that journey he stumbles upon a war between man and nature, though the films conclusion does end up a little preachy, the wondrous imagination of the ride that comes before, makes it all worth it. Filled with vivid characters, glorious set pieces, large scale action, small scale action and plain and beautiful magic, it is the sort of film that feeds the sense of awe of the very young but more than delves into the sort of old school, mythic storytelling that can more than entertain people of all ages. Unquestionably one of the finest achievements in all of animated cinema, this is a film that also ranks up with the greatest of fantasy-adventure movies ever made.

April 8, 2008

The List is Life: #85

85.

The Dame;

Ava Gardner.

Though so widely reknowned for her looks, over the 18 years that she was at the top of her game, Ava Gardner took huge steps as a performer. Making her name as the deadly femme fatale, alongside Burt Lancaster in The Killers, the first of a number of Hemingway adaptations in which she starred, Gardner displayed the sultry beauty she has become iconic for, over the next few years she took in incredibly varying projects, comedy, drama, musical, adventure, film-noir, romance, she worked with major directors and major performers but all the while she was called on for little else than her looks. However, in 1953, under the employ of John Ford she played the wisecracking, emotionally fragile Honey Bear Kelly in Mogambo and scored herself an Oscar nomination. Her reputation as an actress on the increase, Gardner’s star continued to rise, having reached a level of credibility where now she was able to take lead roles in her own right as opposed to simply leading lady roles as she did in George Cukor’s Bhowani Junction. Probably her finest moment as an actor came almost a decade later when she starred alongside Richard Burton in John Huston’s Tennessee William’s adaptation, The Night of the Iguana, matching Burton blow for blow at the very least, she waltzed away with the entire film landing numerous awards nominations including BAFTA and Golden Globes. Though she continued to work regularly for the next 20 years, that was her last great statement as an actress, thereafter her work was, as she put it “for the loot”. The career that had come before was never tarnished, and the status as an icon of her era remains; in an era of skinny blondes, she was unique.

The Dude;

Tony Leung.

Abandoned by his father at the age of eight, the young and mischievous Tony Leung quickly transformed into a quiet, restrained child. Raised, along with his younger sister, by his mother who worked to put him through private school before financial difficulties forced him to pull out at the age of 15, he worked odd jobs before a meeting with fellow Hong Kong star Stephen Chow, influenced him to take up a career on screen. Beginning as the host of childrens television shows before in 1989 his role as a deaf mute in the Venice Film Festival winning Beiqing Chengshi (A City of Sadness) helped catapult him into the public eye, 3 years later starring alongside Chow Yun Fat he cut a blazing trail in John Woo’s Lat sau san taam (Hard Boiled) soon after he established a long standing working relationship with Wong Kar-Wai, with whom he had first worked in 1991s A Fei zhang chuan (Days of Being Wild), they went on to work together on 5 more occasions, helping each other establish their status as being amongst the finest actors and directors in Chinese cinema. That quiet child of the 1970s, repressed in the wake of his patriarchal abandonment had found a new way of communicating with people, through the close hug of the camera, and those eyes that speak a thousand words.

The Director;

Leni Riefenstahl.

Born into a working class neighbourhood in Berlin, Leni Riefenstahl began life as an interpretive dancer, before a knee injury during a performance called a premature end to her career; soon thereafter upon viewing a nature documantary she became fascinated by the emerging cinematic medium and its possibilities, she soon emerged in her native land as a popular actress of the silent era before being offered the chance to direct in the early 1930s, and in 1932 her debut feature Das Blaue Licht (The Blue Light) was released, during the filming of the movie, she read the autobiography Mein Kampf and as she told the Daily Express newspaper in 1934 “I became a confirmed National Socialist after reading the first page” that same year she attended a rally where she heard Adolf Hitler speak for the first time, she was mesmerized by his abilities as a public speaker, he in turn had greatly admired her debut directorial effort and employed her to film Der Sieg des Glaubens (Victory of Faith) an overview of the 1933 Nazi rally at Nuremberg. Though for political reasons the film was a failure, Hitler was impressed with her work and recalled her for the Nuremberg rally the following year, her subsequent Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) stands to this day as one of the finest, most influential achievements in technique in all of cinema, documentary or otherwise. Pioneering cinematic techniques such as the use of tracking rails to achieve moving shots,  distortion of perspective via the use of telephoto lenses and aeriel photography she established herself as one of the great cinematic innovators. Two years later her chronicling of the ’36 Olympic games in Berlin (for which she had qualified to participate in cross-country skiing but withdrew to document) went on to champion the use of smash-cut editing techniques, extreme close-ups, tilted camera angles, the footage went on to make the two part documentary Olympia, the first filmed document of the Olympic games. Following this she began work on Tiefland, a feature film adaptation of Hitler’s favourite opera, though filming began in 1940 it was not completed for 4 years and the editing was not finished until after the end of the war at the completion of which Riefenstahl spent 4 years in a French detention camp, the film finally saw the light of day in 1954. This artistic struggle was emblematic of the rest of her career, though she lived till the age of 101 Riefenstahl would only complete on more film, in the 70s she lied about her age,  at 72, claiming to be 52 in order to gain certification for scuba-diving and after taking up underwater photography she worked on what eventually became Impressionen unter Wasser (Underwater Impressions), an up close look at life under the ocean, and was finally released in August of 2002 on her 100th birthday. She died a year a year later at the age of 101, a figure of artistic impression who had once served a pioneer for her entire medium.

The Picture;

12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957)

In 2007, Sidney Lumet at the age of 83, directed Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a vicious, breakneck sickening fable with a fractured narrative and everything from performance to score amped up to monstrous levels. 50 years earlier, the Philadelphia native had  made his debut with this simple work of extreme emotional power a final triumph for minimalist cinema in an age quickly becoming dominated by widescreen and technicolour following the advent of television. Headed by Henry Fonda in as gentlemanly and dignified  a role as ever,  and Lee J. Cobb unleashing the fiery passion he was so famed for; the film stretched far beyond the restrained confines of its courthouse setting and seemingly simplistic murder case and delved deeper into the heart of humanity. Taking in the good and the bad, the patience and intolerance, love and hatred and all their many complications. Nowhere in sight is there a special effect, no over the top production design, garish costuming or blaring score, it’s 12 men sat at a table, and yet adapted by Reginald Rose from his own play, with an eager young filmmaker at the helm and legends of the game in front of the camera, it encompasses more than most can manage.

April 5, 2008

The List is Life: #88

88.

The Dame;

Joan Crawford.

Perhaps most readily remembered for her feud with Bette Davis which came to a head in 1962 with her being blown off the screen in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and maybe forever tainted by the damning portrait painted by a bitter daughter in Mommie Dearest, the career that Joan Crawford enjoyed for over 30 years beginning at the dawn of the sound era seems to have been generally forgotten. She was an Academy Award winning actress with numerous acclaimed films under her belt, she worked with major directors and major performers. In Mildred Pierce she gave one of the more iconic performances of the golden era, and a decade later in Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, she took the lead as the westen was turned on its head, with strong women in the central roles. One of the greatest of the greatest age, she has insured that she’ll never be forgotten.

The Dude;

Paul Schneider.

Entering into the acting profession at the age of 24 (making him a late comer by todays standards) in the films of David Gordon Green, George Washington and more notably as the lead alongside Zooey Deschanel in All the Real Girls, Paul Schneider has in a just a few short years established himself as one of the more accomplished supporting actors in the movies today. In 2005 he took a side role in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown and with his quirky small town simplicity, literally stole the show from the leads. Then in 2007 he had what could be termed a breakthrough year, with polar opposite roles. Firstly appearing as the villainous Dick Liddil in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a supporting role that he filled with both sinful sleaze and unabashed charm in equal degree, and an almost entirely opposite turn as a quiet, loving brother trying his best to cope with an awkward situation in Lars and the Real Girl. He’s a wonderfully subtle, assured and diverse actor whose career is certainly heading for great heights.

The Director;

Sydney Pollack.

I would venture to say that Sydney Pollack’s finest accomplishments have come in front of the camera rather than behind it. Always taking small roles in movies, he has on more than one occasion, ended up being the finest member of the cast, perhaps most notably in his tiny role in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. However none of these on screen accomplishments can take away from the fact that Pollack is an Academy Award winning director and producer. It was his Robert Redford-Meryl Streep epic Out of Africa that brought him this acclaim, but from where I am sitting his finest work comes in smaller, more character driven movies, where the performers, not the wondrous grandeur take centre stage. As the tagline to his 1969 Jane Fonda vehicle  They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? declared, “People are the ultimate spectacle” and rarely is that more in evidence than in Sydney Pollack’s films.

The Picture;

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)

Though most widely remembered for the grandiosity of the final sequence, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a film that is at heart one of his most intimate and human films. Driven at full force by a wonderful performance from Richard Dreyfuss, who won the Oscar for 1977’s The Goodbye Girl, but should probably have picked up the award for this film. It is a performance both comic and dramatic, filled with the wondrous curiousity of an overgrown child yet at the same time shot through with a certain darkness in its examination of a mans obsession and subsequent neglect of his family. It is that performance around which this film is built; there are brief moments of alien spectacle propping it up throughout, making sure that we remember that we are truly not alone in this one, all mysterious, all beautiful to behold but ambiguous in intent, and it all builds to a wondrous crescendo, that magnificently glorious finale in which all is revealed, truly epic spectacle, human curiousity and those 5 beautiful notes.

March 17, 2008

The List is Life: #94

94.

The Dame;

Nicole Kidman.

Despite being one of the biggest movie stars in business for over a decade and having being best known at one point more for making up one half of the ultimate Hollywood power couple rather than for her movie roles, Nicole Kidman stepped up to the plate at the turn of the century and proved once and for all that she could turn out magnificent work on screen on a regular basis. Prior to her double hit in 2001 with the creepy horror The Others and her Oscar nominated turn in the musical Moulin Rouge! Kidman’s only real performance of note had come under the direction of Gus van Sant in 1995s To Die For, post 2001 she enjoyed a few years of marvellous success in which she took risks entirely foreign to stars of her status, Birthday Girl, The Hours, Dogville, and Birth all proved her capabilities as an actress on smaller and more serious scales. Though since 2004, success has generally eluded her, her participation in movies such as Fur and Margot at the Wedding prove she is still willing to take those risks, and that can never be a bad thing.

The Dude;

Steve Buscemi.

Perhaps the ultimate king of indie cinema. After taking bit parts in the Coen bros. Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink, Steve Buscemi rocketed to fame as Mr. Pink in Quentin Tarantino’s Resevoir Dogs. Since then he has enjoyed a wonderfully varied career as an actor, taking part in the tiniest indie films yet still keeping his profile alive in big budget pictures such as Armageddon, Monster’s Inc. and The Island. Buscemi has also enjoyed success behind the camera, directing small indie films, perhaps most notably 2007’s Interview, as well episodes of HBO shows, Oz and The Sopranos, the latter of which he had a tremendous part on during the shows fifth season. Buscemi is that rare kind of performer who has managed to remain a famous name in major movies without ever selling out his crediblity.

The Director;

Sam Mendes.

Coming from the world of theatre, few could have judged Sam Mendes if he had kept to the style that he knew, as many have done before him. Yet in his three feature films to date, Mendes has displayed a magnificent eye for gloriously cinematic visuals, mixing that visual flair with beautifully human stories he has quickly emerged as one of the more exciting directors in American cinema. Having picked up the Academy Award for direction with his debut film and having that very same film win Best Picture cannot have been an easy act to follow, but so far Mendes has remained varied and interesting and it would not be a surprise to see him surpass that marvellous debut at least once in the future.

The Picture;

The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)

John Ford and John Wayne began collaborating in 1939 with Stagecoach, yet their most famous cinematic pairing came 17 years later with their landmark work in The Searchers. Wayne had played outlaws and men of immensely tough spirit yet never before had he gone to the lengths that he had done in this film, his Ethan Edwards was a racist, obsessive, borderline psychopath and these themes radiated throughout the movie. It was not the first film to explore these themes but certainly one of the first to probe them to the extent that it was done here. Fords attempts to delve into the plight of the Native American and the abuse they were subjected to was many a year ahead of its time to the point of being nothing but a modest commercial success upon initial release, yet as the years have gone by, its status has grown and the way it examines the formation of a nation holds up as well and as powerfully today as it has ever done.

March 13, 2008

The List is Life: #98

98.

The Dame;

Paulette Goddard.

 Despite appearing in many fine films throughout the 30s and 40s not least as one of an all star cast in George Cukor’s The Women, Paulette Goddards career is most widely remembered for her place alongside Charles Chaplin in his masterful pictures Modern Times  and The Great Dictator. Chaplin’s Tramp was, and is, an iconic film character, and Paulette Goodard was the finest of all his leading ladies.

The Dude;

Harrison Ford.

One of the all time great movie stars. With more charm than a hundred cocky pretenders that have come in his wake, Harrison Ford emerged from humble beginnings in carpentry to become one of the cinemas great icons. Whether as the charismatic rogues in superstar franchises Star Wars  and Indiana Jones, working alongside cinematic maestros in films like Blade Runner, Witness  and Frantic or putting that effortless charm to perfect use as the driving force between riotously entertaining pictures like The Fugitive, Harrison Ford has remained a star throughout. 31 years after his initial breakthrough the man is still going strong and preparing to don that most legendary of fedoras one more time.

The Director;

George Lucas.

Though with each passing year since he first ventured into that galaxy, far far away George Lucas has become more a cinematic mogul than a filmmaker, the influence that he has had on the film business is absolutely unquestionable. From his earliest travels into the realms of Sci-Fi with THX-1138  through his nostalgic, teen movie gem American Graffiti  and into that immortal galaxy of filmic legend Lucas has proven himself a trail blazer and innovator in the medium. The influence of Star Wars  on the way major movies were made is unparalleled and the work that his THX sound company and Industrial Light & Magic visual effects company is beyond comparison. George Lucas has branched beyond his far off galaxy to have a mighty influence on the world of cinema.

The Picture;

Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)

The greatest slasher film ever made. Dario Argento’s horror masterpiece is a perfect exercise in the creation of fearful atmospheres and a masterclass in the use of wide open spaces to rack up unbearable tension. Accompanied by one of the creepiest scores in cinematic history, Argento uses vivid colours, darkness, empty space, and the elements in addition to the giallo genre’s trademark gore to present the viewer with the sort of terrifying experience that is not easily forgotten.

February 16, 2008

“I’ve Been A Nobody All My Life”. Andrew Dominik’s – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Dominik, US, 2007)

New Zealand native Andrew Dominik’s first and to date, only feature film, Chopper was made seven years ago it has taken almost one whole decade for him to bring his second film to the screen and when one sees it, it is not the greatest of surprises to see why. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is two hours and forty minutes long, it is a western in which a gun is hardly fired, no stand off’s at dawn, nothing in particular to link it to the golden era of American Westerns of the 40s and 50s .

It is a very long, slow moving film heading in a direction that we are made aware of from the very start. The slow burn ebb that is this films pace carries us on this journey towards this inevitable collision course with the mournful spirit of a funeral procession.

The film is not without its faults. The narrative voiceover, while beautifully poetic in the films prologue and epilogue is entirely superfluous, most of the time pointing out information that either serves no great purpose to the picture overall or in some places provides us with nothing more than a description of what is happening on screen. Here is that issue that so many filmmakers come upon in adaptations of literar works. To have such an appreciation for their source materials language that they feel the need to shoehorn as much of it in as is possible to the detriment of their own artistic achievement within their own medium.

One could make the argument that such films who give in to such straightforward page to screen adaptations with lumps of voiceover brimming throughout are serving as little more than promotional material for the story from which they are adapted. No film can include all that is in a book and hence through their complete lack of vision such filmmakers irrevocably surrender themselves up as being artists of a lesser medium.

Yet I digress, this is a beautiful film with a magnificent artistic vision. Andrew Dominik has crafted a melancholy, ponderous film in line with the works of Terrence Malick. The sort of film scarcely seen in American cinema since the death of auteur cinema in the wake of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate in 1980.

Perhaps the foremost artist in contributing to this poetic atmosphere is cinematographer Roger Deakins, veteran of such beautifully scoped pictures as The Shawshank Redemption, Kundun and The Village. Deakins work on this film may not be quite the visual storyteller that his work on No Country For Old Men was but its majestic nature is like few films that have come before it. Almost every shot throughout the film could have adorned the wall of an art gallery.

Warren Ellis and Nick Cave who composed the score, bring the same sparse, stripped down and eery compositions to this film as they brought to their similarly lyrical Western, The Proposition. The beautifully detailed costumes and production design help lend the film the romantic tones it strives for.

The cast is on magnificent form throughout. The continually underrated Sam Rockwell turns in another mighty fine supporting turn as Charley Ford, the good hearted, good natured, simple brother of the eponymous assassin. Garret Dillahunt, Jeremy Renner and Paul Schneider all turn in differing degrees of fine work as the members of the James gang, all turning on one another, a self combusting unit of low lives.

Zooey Deschanel and Mary Louise Parker, two mighy fine actresses are restricted to little more than cameos yet, being the quality performers they are, both make the absolute most of their slight material. Parker as Jesse James’ wife, Zee is the conscience of her husband, the down to earth, homemaking wife who has little more than a gaze of mistrust for all the men in her husbands life, and her final scene by her husbands side is a mournful piece of work completely out of left field. Entirely putting in the shade other actresses this year that have grieved for dead husbands with all the creative ingenuity of a hack. Parker’s pitiful, restrained wails are of a woman who has long expected this moment to come, it’s a beautifully judged piece of work; as is Zooey Deschanel in her brief appearance as Robert Ford’s wife lights up the screen with her glances and gestures, the probing delivery of her dialogue, she reads the ‘coward’ and finally draws the truth out of him.

Yet when all is said and done this is the story of two men and they both carry it off with aplomb. Some have been critical of Brad Pitt’s casting, hoping that a ‘real’ actor could have had the chance to sink his teeth into the part, yet there are two very important and perfect reasons for his casting.

Firstly, this IS a very distinct sort of film – long, slow, with none of the stand offs and shoot outs one has come to expect from a Western; with a ten word title that is just as uncompromising as it’s tone. It was Pitt himself who had it stipulated in his contract that the title of the film could not be changed and one can only assume that where it not for the participation of a star of this magnitude, the film that reached the screen would have had to take a great deal more in the way artistic liberties to reach audiences.

Secondly this is essentially a portrait of societies obsession with celebrity, with a man attempting to bring down a superstar so that he may become one himself; who better to cast in such a part than one of the biggest movie star’s on the planet?

All this aside, Pitt plays the part beautifully. This is unquestionably the finest work of his career. He makes no apologies for the man he is playing, his Jesse James is utterly insane and he begins unfurling from the very start. A tortured, haunted man, coming apart at the seams, it’s pretty disturbing to watch and never at any point does he stray over the top.

Yet at heart this is Robert Ford’s story and Casey Affleck emerges out of obscurity with what is turning out to be one hell of a year, after his wonderfully hard edged, soft centred turn in Gone Baby, Gone he gives here the type of whiny, snivelling, shady performance that I would feel most comfortable comparing to something like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. The low, whiny, voice that emerges from a half opened mouth, the hunched shoulders, this is a physical performance as much as anything else. Affleck presents Robert Ford to us as an incredibly thoughtful, confused, obsessive young man with no idea of his direction in the universe. A man willing to do anything to make a name for himself when the object of his lifelong obsession turns out to be nothing like he expected.

Andrew Dominik should be applauded for his efforts, the unneccessary overuse of the narration and a few subplots that could have been considered expendable aside, this is a beautiful work of artistry, another fine addition to the modern western, a melancholy stroll through obsession and misguided perceptions of the world. One can only hope that the director will not take 7 more years to get another film made, and that when it comes he can maintain the haunting vision of this one.

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