The Parnassus Times

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.

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February 16, 2008

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

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , — cigarettesalesman @ 4:25 pm

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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