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.

April 17, 2008

The List is Life: #80

80.

The Dame;

Marcia Cross.

Acting since her early 20s, Marcia Cross spent the first decade of her career working mainly bit parts on television before establishing herself on Melrose Place in 1992. After 5 years on the show she departed and returned back to the point she had been at before, appearing on such shows as Seinfeld, Spin City, Ally McBeal and King of Queens, before in 2004 she landed the role that put her on the map in a whole new way. For her role in Desperate Housewives, Cross has garnered Emmy, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild nominations. Though often overlooked in favour of her more  actorly, kookier or aestherically pleasing co-stars, Cross has proved from the very start that she is on a different planet all together. Balancing the comedic and the dramatic in perfect equilibrium, she stole the shows first season out from under the noses of everybody around her, with her pitch perfect delivery of every line and the extreme emotive powers of those enchanting eyes. For 20 years she paid her dues, and finally she’s making it count, embedding her Bree Van de Kamp upon the minds of all that bear witness to her.

The Dude;

James Gandolfini.

James Gandolfini began acting in his late 20s, his first screen role coming in 1987. The first decade of his screen career seemed to be generally built around his look, he spent most of his time playing heavies in films like True Romance and Get Shorty. His most substantial film roles both came in 2001 with supporting work in The Mexican in which he straight up stole the whole show from the two A-list superstars at the films heart with his heartfelt turn as a gay hitman. That same year he also worked with the Coen brothers in The Man Who Wasn’t There, for the first time playing a man more concerned with business than brawling and played the character with a slightly lecherous, but whole heartedly enthusiastic vigour. Yet there is no denying that what he is most known for is as the head of one of the most popular television shows in history. As Tony Soprano, Gandolfini rocked audiences as he took the character from one level to the next, charming, loving, amiable, astute, amoral, vicous, conniving. He was the loving father, the ruthless businessman, the venomous gangster and the troubled middle aged man. Serving as a figure of identification for working men everywhere, Gandolfini managed to portray both the human that we all know, and the monster that we are enraptured by, both with absolute sincerity. Over the shows 8 year run he embedded that into the publics conscience, where it will never be forgotten. He was an everyman, but he was something more, and thats what made him unforgettable.

The Director;

Arthur Penn.

After establishing himself in the 1950s as a television director, Arthur Penn moved into movies with The Left Handed Gun, an adaptation of Gore Vidal’s play, a Billy the Kid picture starring Paul Newman, portraying the notorious outlaw as the  emotionally troubled youth that he was. 4 years later came the adapting of another play, William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, chronicling teacher Anne Sullivan’s relationship with Helen Keller. The film was, as its tagline stated “An emotional earthquake”, it landed Academy Awards for both it’s leading ladies, Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. After this great success he took a 180 degree turn in taking the helm of the surreal, nouvelle-vague influenced Mickey One, a darkly atmospheric, dream-like tale of paranoia. The next year he got topical with The Chase, a state of the nation piece, dealing with the issues of violence, racism and corruption, running through American society. However it was the next year that he put his name on the map once and for all, with Bonnie & Clyde, as with his last two pictures this was influenced once more by the French new wave and more than anything dealt with the countries disenchanted youth. Set during the depression of the 30s but dealing with the issues of the counterculture age that was sweeping the nation. Bonnie & Clyde was the sparkplug that set off the reformation of American cinema and it was Arthur Penn, his European influences reinvigorating American film and with a finger on the pulse of the nation, concerned with its problems and with giving a voice to its youth, that stood of the forefront of that movement and solidified his place in history.

The Picture;

Rocky (John G. Avildsen, 1976)

If there is one word to describe this film, it’s American, if there is another, it’s fairytale. Rocky is an American fable, and in a decade that had been almost entirely dominated by a new kind of cynicism and bitter venom flowing through the veins of American cinema, it’s coming on the 200 year anniversary of its nations independence was a breath of fresh air. At its heart it is nothing more than a male take on the Cinderella story; of a down on his luck nobody, mixed up with the wrong people, and his one shot at something grander. It is a portrayal of that much talked of American dream, of a mans determination to make it, and the lengths he goes to and the obstacles that he overcomes to get to where he needs to be. Rocky is a character very much of his time, a symbol of the changing world, hulking yet simple and uncertain of his place in the world. Sylvester Stallone creates an icon in the centre of it all, quiet and good at heart, but capable of brutality when need be, a man seemingly at peace with his place in the world yet always dreaming of something more. Not only does Stallone create a beautifully simplistic character on screen (displaying thespian abilities, that make one mourn what could have been, had Hollywood superstardom not come calling), but as writer of the film he brings the working class neighbourhood vividly and romantically to life. In this film (marred somewhat by its sequels) the message is straightforward and simple as it’s titular character; a man with little in the way of prospects yearns to prove himself, a man looked down on by all those around him, seeks to show just what he’s made of, to all the world, on the grandest stage of them all. Winning is never his aim, it’s all in the name of pride.

April 7, 2008

The List is Life: #86

86.

The Dame;

Julie Walters.

Julie Walters first came to the attention of screen audiences in 1983 when she starred alongside Michael Caine in the film adaptation of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, she landed a BAFTA win and scored an Oscar nomination with her first major film role. Always remaining true to her roots, she never really sold her soul to Hollywood, continuing to do most of her work on British TV throughout the 80s, continuing to establish herself as one of the brightest comiediennes of her generation. Her work in the 90s consisted mainly of TV movies before at the turn of the century she landed an immense career relaunching role in Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliott, her immense warmth, and earthly generosity, brightening up the bleak landscapes of northern England. The following year she landed the role of Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter films and a level of fame she had never experienced came her way, her newfound status helped to keep her working consistently in film on projects such as Calender Girls, Wah-Wah, Becoming Jane and Mamma Mia! her newfound status as a connoisseur of bright, middle aged supporting roles ensuring she should be working on screen for a long time to come.

The Dude;

Johnny Depp.

Performing on screen since his early 20s, Johnny Depp is a performer that for the majority of his career to date refused to cash in on the pretty boy looks that made him so popular, instead choosing to work in quirkier, more unconventional roles. Films such as Edward Scissorhands, Benny & Joon, Dead Man and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Perhaps towering above all, his performance as the titular character in frequent collaborator Tim Burton’s Ed Wood was a masterclass in naivity, in heartfelt passion, in unwavering determination, it is, quite simply, one of the better performances of recent times. In recent years he has taken a turn towards the more mainstream roles that have made him a worldwide icon, perhaps now as a parent, feeling a greater need to entertain the planet’s youth, he has still managed to turn in at least one magnificent performance, as the nothing less than legendary Captain Jack Sparrow in Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Depp has entirely realigned the common image of the pirate, rewriting a once savage, macho persona with something far more akin to a glam rock star. If for nothing else (and it would be a shame if a decade’s great work were overlooked) Depp has ensure he will be forever stamped upon cinema legend for making that inspired choice and redefining piratehood for all. Always most impressive in these quirky roles, it would be alot better for everyone if he could continue to find those parts that stretch him as a performer and allow him to make those choices, instead of allowing him to settle into the middle aged laziness that is far below his capabilities.

The Director;

Luchino Visconti.

Born into one of Northern Italy’s richest families, that Luchino Visconti went on to become one of the founding fathers of the Italian neo-realism movement is something of a surprise. When one learns that he was a supporter of the Italian communist party, that he was not entirely content with his position in life becomes far more apparent. Starting in the business in the mid 30s as assistant director to Jean Renoir before meeting Roberto Rossellini, together the two joined with Benito Mussolini’s son Vittorio, the national arbitrator for cinema and the arts and from there his own career took off, making his debut in 1943 with Ossessione, an adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, he continued to delve in the neo-realist genre that he had helped establish, his premier work came four years later with La Terra Trema a chronicle of the difficult lives of the inhabitants of a Sicilian Fishing village. Starting with his 1954 film Senso, Visconti began to shift away from neorealism, as he drifted into the 60s, Visconti’s films began to come more personal in nature, his 1963 Burt Lancaster Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) probably his best remembered film detaling the decline of the Sicilian aristocracy from which the director himself had emerged. Visconti continued working right up until the year of his death in 1976, and though the neorealism that he is still best remembered for was long gone, he was still making a point, right until the end.

The Picture;

Pinocchio (Hamilton Luske & Ben Sharpsteen, 1940)

The puppet Pinocchio first appeared in an 1883 childrens novel The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, however there can be no doubt that the most iconic version of the story (as with so many of their animated adaptations) is the one that Walt Disney turned out in 1940. The story of a wooden boy, filled with more life and heart than most human filled stories. Pinocchio features a naive yet loveable lead character who in the immortal Jiminy Cricket has one of the great screen sidekicks in history. The loving family (make that father and 2 pets) that he leaves behind are as caring and memorable a group as Disney have ever come up with, and the film is populated from head to toe with supporting players each as vividly memorable as the last. Though now almost 70 years old and a Disney family classic, the film is also shot through with an incredibly dark streak, nasty supporting characters, a monstrous whale and one of the most horrific scenes ever to feature in a children’s movie that will certainly ensure you never look at a donkey the same way again. It’s a magical film, filled to the brim with what at times seems like an almost infinite darkness, but shining through it all, that little ray of hope, of good, and it never relents.

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 15, 2008

The List is Life: #97

97.

The Dame;

Cate Blanchett.

A decade on from her breakthrough role as Elizabeth I in Shekhar Kapur’s biographical drama, Cate Blanchett has firmly established herself as one of the most respected and acclaimed actresses in the business. Here is a woman who can play seemingly any role from virginal young British queens to male American rock stars, one Oscar already under her belt and many more sure to follow. Though the accusation of cold and mechanical has often been shot her way, the Australian has shown immense talent in the utterly free flowing and naturalistic Veronica Guerin, a very underappreciated and underseen film that may just be her best performance to date.

The Dude;

Marcello Mastroianni.

One of the great stars of European cinema, Marcello Mastroianni was one of the most naturally charismatic and effortlessly cool stars to ever stride across the silver screen. This was a man from a small Italian village, a man that during the second world war was interned in (and escaped from) a Nazi prison. Yet all this could not stop him from achieving international fame and the reputation of Italy’s finest actor. Despite being one of only two actors to win the Cannes film festival Best Actor award twice, Mastroianni is most remembered for his perfectly underplayed but endlessly effective starring roles in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2, two of the sixties most revered and iconic films, thanks in large part to him.

The Director;

Claude Chabrol.

When talk of the French New Wave is brought up, it is the names Godard and Truffaut that are most readily heralded, yet in 1958, aged just 28, Claude Chabrol directed his debut film Le Beau Serge, and with this small town examination of opposites he is the man who essentially kicked off the movement that revolutionized French cinema. In the half a century since then, Chabrol has continued to probe the depths of humanity as well as establishing himself in the mystery and thriller genre as a sort of French Hitchcock. Though most of his peers have either passed away or simply passed their best, Chabrol continues to work efficiently into his 78th year.

The Picture;

Titanic (James Cameron, 1997)

Everyone knows the statistics, 1.8 billion dollars at the international box office (that’s roughly 700,000 ,000 dollars more than it’s nearest rival. 700,000,000 is about the international box office gross of Michael Bay’s Transformers) a record equaling 14 Oscar nominations and a record equaling 11 Oscar wins. Yet at heart it is all very simple, this is a story about rich and poor united in the face of the most immense human tragedy, a story about the destructive nature of man’s continuing struggle to ascend to immortality, a story about breaking free, about love. It is, in the end, of the same stock as the old romantic epics in Hollywood history, and more than worthy of that status. It is a modern classic, that blends both blossoming romance and epic disaster to create one of the great stories in cinema. The ship may have sunk to the bottom of the ocean, but as far as the film goes, there is nothing but ascension on the horizon.

March 12, 2008

The List is Life: #99

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99.

The Dame;

Lauren Bacall.

Making her screen debut alongside a Hollywood legend at the age of just 19 can’t have been easy, but were you to see the smouldering confidence with which Lauren Bacall carries herself through To Have and Have Not, alongside her soon to be husband, Humphrey Bogart, and you’d think she was a seasoned pro. For over 60 years she has continued to turn in highly confident and mature work, time and time again. Her legendary status cannot be denied, and her beauty has probably lead to her being tremendously overlooked as an actress.

The Dude;

Sean Connery.

An absolute pro. His marvellous physique made him the perfect super spy in his prime yet as the decades have gone by, Sean Connery has displayed a natural and effortless screen charisma that only the true legends of the game could claim to possess. That he numbers among their rank, cannot be denied.

The Director;

Victor Fleming.

Victor Fleming began his directing career making fairly low key silent films. He finished it in the 1940s, making star vehicles with Spencer Tracy as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Ingrid Bergman as Joan of Arc. Yet in the end his career has been eternally defined (and rightfully so) by the year 1939, in which he snatched up the reigns and took control of the troubled productions of two all time classics, The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind. Two bonafide iconic films, from entirely different ends of the spectrum, both steereed to the screen by the same man in the same year. Not bad a for a fella who started life in the business as a stuntman.

The Picture;

The Jungle Book (Wolfgang Reitherman, 1967)

Based (albeit loosely) on the book by Rudyard Kipling and as the last Disney film overseen by the great man himself, The Jungle Book could have coasted on the reputation that such claims would have afforded it. Yet the studio managed, even in the wake of its creators passing to rise up and turn out one of their most beloved classics. Catchy songs from start to finish keep all entertained, characters that are both zany and bold ensure that this is an experience the viewer shall never forget and laying at the heart of this animal kingdom is an entirely human story about a child growing up and accepting his destiny. The darker nature of Kipling’s story may have been replaced by something altogether more family-friendly, but the deep humanity at heart remains throughout.

March 11, 2008

The List is Life: #100

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So in my seemingly infinite boredom I recently took it upon myself to create lists. I created 4 lists, top hundreds, of my favourite films, directors, actors and actresses and over the coming days, weeks, months…hopefully no more than that…I shall unveil them here for your amusement, and almost surely, disgust. So without further ado, let’s get the show on the road…

100.

The Dame;

Julie Andrews.

With the glorious voice of a Goddess, and bags upon bags of effortless charm and seemingly infinite grace, Julie Andrews has remained strong in the industry for over 40 years. With numerous legendary characters and many marvellous movies under her belt, she has certainly assured that she shall never be forgotten.

The Dude;

Dennis Quaid.
A movie star in the classical mold. Not a performer with the greatest deal of range, but the sort of sturdy and assured performer who will basically deliver again and again, and who will always provide you with his own brand of masculine charm. When he’s on top form, he’s a riot to watch, and more than capable of stealing entire movies.

The Director;

James Cameron.

A consummate entertainer, James Cameron is a filmmaker with almost limitless ambition. Whether creating his own iconic franchise with the first two Terminator films, adopting another and following Ridley Scott’s atmospheric horror masterpiece Alien, with one of the most glorious achievements in the history of action cinema with Aliens, or going epic and turning in the box office and awards juggernaut Titanic, a film with accomplishments so grand it has taken him over a decade to return to making feature films, James Cameron always seeks to excel, always seeks to push boundaries, and all talk of monstrous ego’s aside, that’s always worth admiring. One thing’s for sure, he’s certainly never boring.

The Picture;

Red River ( Howard Hawks, 1948 )

With the debut of the magnificent Montgomery Clift, the first signs of a wicked heart under the All-American hero that was John Wayne, and the legendary Walter Brennan on fabulous form, Howard Hawks turned in his first classic of the Western genre. Both epic in scope and intimate at heart, with a very telling human story at its centre, Red River is one of the fine exponents of the classical Western both saying its piece about its nation, and at the same time, never failing to entertain for the entirity of its running time.

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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