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Sunday, Sep 30, 2007


He’s the most popular author of genre fiction ever. His sales have staggered a publishing industry used to thousands, not millions of units moved. His name is synonymous with fright and fear, a moniker mentioned alongside the classical macabre names. Yet when it comes to motion picture translations of his titles, Stephen King can’t catch a break. Granted, it’s an old story, one that’s been going on for nearly three decades now. But when Brian DePalma took the novice novelist’s first successful tome – the telekinetic teenager tale Carrie – and made it into box office gold, it opened the door for dozens of like minded auteurs to attack King’s canon. To say that the results have been scattershot at best would be some manner of historical heresy. With rare exceptions, he’s the King all right – the king of cinematic crap.


From a purely technical standpoint, there are well over 100 adaptations of the author’s work available for consideration. The split is about 60/40 between short stories and actual full length works. The vast majority of these movies were made between 1976 and 1996, and more than a couple represent the franchising or serialization of pieces (Children of the Corn, The Lawnmower Man) that lacked the necessary narrative heft to sustain multiple takes. In completely subjective terms, King’s craft has resulted in around 15 well regarded films. There are another half dozen or so that could be called successful without necessarily arguing for their overall artistry. That still leaves nearly 80% of the output in the average to awful category, and for anyone who has waded through that celluloid swamp, the garbage far outweighs the merely mediocre.


All of which leads to the question of why – why can’t King’s brainchildren catch a motion picture break? It seems like, for every Stand By Me, there’s a pair of unnecessary ‘Salem’s Lot sequels, for each Shawshank Redemption, there’s a similar big budget failure like Dreamcatcher or Hearts in Atlantis. Of course, some may argue that the man’s outstanding oeuvre, containing more text than a century of filmmaking could possibly handle, begs for such a hit or miss maxim. But the fact remains that some of the author’s best books – Pet Sematary, The Dark Half – have ended up delivering incredibly average entertainments. Even the seemingly successful interpretations – The Stand, IT – have issues among the faithful, from casting to editorial cuts.


It’s important to note why King is so heralded in the first place. Among his kind – writers specializing in horror – he’s one helluva storyteller. In fact, he’s so good, so adept at getting into your subconscious and laying down the ground rules, that it’s almost impossible for a film to step in and match your imagination. It’s the reason Stanley Kubrick rewrote The Shining as more of a psychological character study vs. a harrowing haunted hotel saga. Without the effects to accurately recreate King’s kinetic set pieces (the killer topiary animals, the shape-shifting interior design) the famed director had to rely on atmosphere, and acting, to carry his vision.


Or consider Christine, for a moment. John Carpenter is a horror maestro, a man responsible for a bevy of brilliant terror treats. When it was announced that he would helm an adaptation of King’s killer car novel, aficionados of both the writer and the director were psyched. To have two legitimate legends of their craft collaborating seemed like a dizzying dream come true. Of course, such a fantasy flew squarely into the reality of what Carpenter had taken on. As a book, Christine is almost all internal monologue, the character of Arnie Cunningham’s best friend Dennis Guilder explaining how his buddy slowly went insane under the influence of the evil automobile. There are also additional plot points that the movie completely avoids.


Now, this is nothing new for a book to film transfer. You can’t take the text verbatim and expect it to become a meaningful motion picture. But when you mess with a beloved work of fiction, you invite two kinds of criticism. The first comes from fans upset at the changes made. The second arrives from individuals who can’t quite figure out why this title deserved the big screen treatment in the first place. Both may have a point and still be completely wrong. Novels are not perfect, and sometimes, what seemed good on the page can appear paltry blown up 70 feet high. In fact, it’s clear that a lot of King’s works play better in the theater of the mind than the local Cineplex.


But that still doesn’t address the issue of his slipshod status. Perhaps a compare and contrast could help. In 1983, venereal horror icon David Cronenberg became attached to direct one of King’s more commercial works – the psychic thriller The Dead Zone. The basic premise found Johnny Smith, an average man, awaken from a coma after five years. Involved in a horrible auto accident, he barely escaped with his life. During rehabilitation, he discovers he has a gift of second sight. By touching a person, he can look into their past as well as their future. He even has the ability to influence and change events yet to come. All of this leads to a confrontation with a Presidential candidate who is out to start World War III. As the wheel of fate would have it, Smith must play assassin to stop the political favorite.


Again, Cronenberg tweaked the tale, removing backstory and emphasizing other aspects of King’s book. With the West still battling a frigid Cold War with the East, the importance on nuclear annihilation was illustrated, and thanks to a wonderful performance by Christopher Walken, Johnny’s dilemma was given depth and gravitas. So while some of the book’s more important twists were avoided or amplified, Cronenberg stuck to the basics. He believed in King’s ability to tell a tale, and did very little to vary from his prophetic prose. It remains one of the main reasons that The Dead Zone is a brilliant film, as well as a powerful page turner.


In sharp distinction, something like Pet Sematary pales in comparison. While it has its defenders, many find this film a shadow of King’s horrifying, hellacious original. Dealing with a topic that automatically hooks many prospective parents – the death of a child – and using reincarnation as a means for a far more terrifying prospect, the novel was originally scrapped by the author. He felt that, in a creative realm where he pushed the envelope of the gruesome and grotesque, a killer kid was just too much to fathom. Luckily, King’s better half (his wife Tabitha) convinced him otherwise, and yet another bestseller was born. Yet when it finally came around to making the movie, a series of bad decisions resulted in a less than successful product.


Up front, director Mary Lambert was a moviemaking novice. She only had one feature under her belt (the little seen Siesta) and may have helmed some successful music videos (for Madonna, among others), but that’s hardly the resume for taking on such a tricky piece. To make matters worse, she cast mostly unknowns. Among the leads, only Fred Gwynne (Herman Munster himself) had any real name or fame value. The final nail in the creative coffin was the direct participation of King. By this time (1989), he had grown tired of how his books were treated by screenplay writers, and he took a stab at the script. Yet even the man who originated the story failed to stay true to it. There were changes in both situations and tone that bothered longtime fans.


All the missteps did eventually add up. While slightly effective, Pet Sematary the movie is nowhere near as powerful as the book. Part of the problem is the actors. Aside from Gwynne, everyone else has a tepid, TV movie like quality to their presence. Even worse, the subject matter seems severely toned down so as not to totally derail already angst ridden Mommys and Daddys. Such audience friendly fiddling seems to go hand in hand with a King adaptation. This is especially true of broadcast standards and practices. Many of the author’s tales have been translated into small screen mini-series, the better to deal with their scope. But such a strategy limits content, undercutting the epic evil of IT, or the end of the world wonder of The Stand.


And yet some artists manage to turn the tentative into the terrific – and they seem to follow the Cronenberg method of manipulation (which can actually be traced back to DePalma and Carrie). Take The Shawshank Redemption. Frank Darabont took the original prison story and kept the core conceits. Changing very little, but streamlining some of the subplots, he managed what many consider to be one of the greatest films of all time. Rob Reiner reinvented both “The Body” (which became the nostalgic classic Stand By Me) and Misery by playing to King’s strengths (story) while deemphasizing his weaknesses (his lack of visualized action). Recently, Swedish director Mikael Håfström took 1408 and created a wonderfully moody minor classic – and he did so by remaining faithful while still striking out on his own.


Clearly, staying true to King is not an instant guarantee for achievement. Such efforts as Needful Things, Secret Window, and Apt Pupil all managed minor liberties with their source, and still they appeared underwhelming and incomplete. On the other hand, open interpretations often end up equally unexceptional. Graveyard Shift abandoned most of what the short story had to offer, and yet the giant rat retread was dull and dopey. Similarly, The Mangler made the mechanical horror of the original into something far stupider and unbelievable. Apparently, for every insightful interpretation (Dolores Claiborne) there’s a failure to figure things out properly (The Night Flyer, anyone?).


Perhaps the key is talent. While not a given (Dreamcatcher came from Lawrence Kasdan, after all), it is obvious that when individuals of great artistic insight take on King’s work, something worthwhile usually results. Darabont did it again with The Green Mile, which makes his upcoming work on fan favorite The Mist all the more exciting. Mick Garris usually makes the most of the author’s words, having guided several entertaining TV efforts. George Romero gave the sensational schlock of Creepshow the proper EC comic coating (though his Dark Half was merely a marginal triumph) and even the man of letters himself argued for his frequently misplaced participation when he directed the disastrous Maximum Overdrive.


So maybe it is just a statistical anomaly. A man with so many adaptations of his work is bound to have more than his fair share of failures. And when you consider that he’s working in horror, an already tricky cinematic type, that anything with his name attached actually gels should be cause for celebration. Yet King has written very few clunkers in his four decades behind the typewriter, and the subpar productions (Firestarter, Thinner) keep cramping his reputation. In fact, the hack nature of his many movie flops has definitely impacted his literary worth. Though he’s frequently referred to himself as the medium equivalent of a Big Mac and Fries, the vast majority of his writing is not junk food. Sadly, most of the movies made from his ideas are barely digestible. 


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Sunday, Sep 30, 2007


That’s right! It’s Terror Time! Time for Short Ends and Leader to get its ghoul on as part of our annual celebration of all things scary. For the entire month of October, the blog will be focusing on different horror heavyweights, from known names like Troma to unheralded upstarts like Wicked Pixel. In between, we’ll address the new movie macabre classics, unearth a few forgotten gems, talk about old fashioned monsters, and countdown the best and worst in specific genres (zombie films, the greatest moments in splatter). First up is that master of literary evil, Stephen King. With 1408 hitting DVD this week, we’ll look back at the cinematic career of the greatest living writer of fear ever. Good thing he has all those literary accolades. As our Monday feature explains, his big screen reputation is rather shaky.


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Sunday, Sep 30, 2007


It’s important to remember a film’s intended demographic. A gross out slacker comedy to some will be a realistic look at a life among one’s peers to another. It’s the same with comic book adaptations. While the genre was always geared toward post-adolescent audiences with a healthy nostalgia for their collections and the characters, there remains an equally thriving underage contingent that doesn’t respond well to all the introspection and brooding. So when the initial Fantastic Four film decided to drop the existentialism and go for the grade schooler, the obsessive reacted like someone had dismantled and played with their limited edition action figures. What they failed to recognize was that not every movie has to be focused directly toward their mentality. Sometimes, a family friendly approach can find a payday as well.


Of course, this doesn’t excuse the first installment in the proposed franchise. It was a tripe trifle, forged out of the flimsiest of scripts and topped with the most awkward of casting considerations. For those who couldn’t imagine a worse take on the material than the 1994 Roger Corman reject (made to settle a rights issue), the update was equally awful – what with it’s reliance on cornball humor and blatant Hollywood hokum. Yet even with the inconsistent acting – Jessica Alba and Michael Chiklis just can’t make the superhero thing work, period – and less than impressive F/X (especially in connection with Reed Richards’ shoddy CGI shape shifting), the movie made a profit. And if there is one constant in the motion picture biz, is that success demands a sequel. Equally important is remembering to copy exactly what made the first effort fiscally viable.


Our new saga (now on DVD from Fox) starts when a planet in a nearby galaxy suddenly implodes and splits apart. From the chaos comes a silver streak of light, its path marked directly for the Earth. In the meantime, Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) are trying, once again, to get married. They’ve failed four times before, and they’re hoping that the fifth times the charm. During this stressful time, brother Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) has been living it up, womanizing and trading on the Four’s good name for his own fame whoring needs. Old pal Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), on the other hand, has finally settled into his all rock persona, and is even enjoying a romance with blind gal pal Alicia Masters. When the Army contacts Reed about building a machine to track the cosmic radiation generated by some newly discovered holes in the planet’s surface, the bad news is discovered – The Silver Surfer has come to our world. And eight days after he arrives, the occupied planet simply dies. 


With director Tim Story back behind the lens (a call many feel belies the franchise’s biggest flaw) and a new character to carry us past the problems, The Rise of the Silver Surfer is definitely better than you’d expect. It’s also a popcorn flick full of the same old slop. For everything it gets right (the reverence toward the title entity, the epic arrival of Galactus) it provides even more fuel for the faithfuls’ ire. Granted, Stan Lee never intended this quartet to be taken too seriously. Unlike other comic avengers, the Four were a dysfunctional family that actually catered to and basked in the limelight. But with Alba’s Sue Storm even drippier as the narrative’s main wet blanket, and superficial supermodel Julian McMahon’s dreadfully dull take on Dr. Doom, our newly introduced chrome conqueror has a lot to countermand. For the most part, the metal man succeeds.


Indeed, after seeing this outing, there is hope for the planned Silver Surfer spin-off project, thanks in part to the stellar reading Laurence Fishbourne brings to the role. When combined with the state of the art computer animation (it’s a Weta level of realism that the first film avoided), and some old fashioned stand it work, our interstellar sentry with the planet prepping mandate definitely comes alive. Although he’s hardly a main character – The Thing’s blind babe gets about as much screen time – his impact is such that we actually anticipate his next appearance. Thanks in part to a broadening of scope (we’re dealing with a world killer here), the accompanying action that surrounds the part, and the last act change of heart, we get a well rounded, three dimensional star who is stuck as a supporting player in a meandering mess. 


This makes the main foursome seem all the more minor. Chiklis cannot overcome his man in a costume conceit, and every time The Thing interacts with the others, it’s like stepping back in time to the less convincing era of pre-‘80s make-up work. Richards’ stretch skills are more believable this time around, though they almost always wind up part of some slapstick gag. One of the main narrative elements in the film – the Surfer interaction side effect of Johnny Storm switching powers with his fellow crime fighters – makes for some interesting sequences, especially during a midpoint problem in London. Yet the firestarter character remains a cloying card, the kind of slick, look at me loudmouth that can grow annoying very easily. Luckily, actor Chris Evans has little to worry about when it comes to grating. Jessica Alba’s whiny, wounded Sue Storm is enough to drive any sane superhero lover to irritation.


Still, you can sense Story’s fascination and love of the material, and it’s an opinion seconded by the bonus features found on the new two disc digital edition. The director’s commentary is especially enlightening, since we learn of his outright geek love for the Four, as well as his desire to stay as true to the comics as possible (who knew). Even in the documentary featurettes provided on the making of the movie, Story is a stone cold nerd. Creating and controlling the world that these beloved icons exist in seems to bring out his inner child. Among the rest of the cast and crew, it appears to be nothing more than business as usual. A second alternate narrative track (featuring a producer, writer, and editor) is a dour, overly technical affair that saps any possible enjoyment out of the project. Similarly, the F/X and design overviews often provide little more than electronic press shilling. The only legitimate look behind the scenes comes from a near hour long backstage glimpse. It’s great stuff.


It’s just too bad then that Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, plays to such a specific demographic. This is the kind of movie that requires a viewer who’s still open to the magic of movies while not being so dense that they miss some of the more satiric bits. Be a little too lost and Tim Story’s take on this title will seem like advanced trigonometry. Know a little too much about the comic in question and the many liberties taken with the characters, and you’re going to be angry at every single frame. Viewed with the proper eyes and processed by the necessary mentality, this plaintive blockbuster wannabe really rocks. Any other critical consideration argues for its slightly average amusements. Figuring out where you stand on the subject will end up being the best guide for your potential pleasure


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Saturday, Sep 29, 2007


It gets marginalized and joked about, but few film fans really understand the importance of exploitation. Like labeling a movie “Troma-esque” or referencing a title as “torture porn”, the stock cinematic categorization has become a buzzword, a term used to undermine a movie by giving it tacky tenets it may not actually own. Sure, a lot of the films that played in Pussycat Theaters and drive-ins nationwide were geared toward busting taboos and violating common decency. Yet without their envelope pushing chutzpah, their desire to do more with the medium than the cowardly Hollywood hacks, the post-modern phase of filmmaking would have never arrived. It’s true. In addition, without that sensational ‘70s epiphany, a moment where the artform truly found its finesse, new age architects like Quentin Tarantino wouldn’t have an inspirational pool to dip in.


Throughout this anarchic auteur’s reign of referencing, the entire history of celluloid has been his memory bank. But when it comes to specific statements, the Me Decade makes this director all hot and bothered. One need look no further than his contribution to the Spring 2007 experiment entitled Grindhouse. In collaboration with fellow indie icon Robert Rodriguez, the man responsible for giving outsider filmmaking its maverick flair decided to revisit the days when double features ruled, and coming attractions were often more impressive that the picture they supported. At over three hours, many moviegoers couldn’t handle the skin and splatter glory of what these inspired box office bad boys were attempting. Now separated for DVD by Genius Products/Dimension Films, and released separately, we are treated to a longer, European cut of Mr. Pulp Fiction’s fabulous Death Proof. Even without its zombie stomp accompaniment, we are witness to everything that made exploitation so important. 


Our story begins when three Austin gals – disc jockey Jungle Julia (Sydney Poitier), her buddy Shanna (Jordan Ladd), and visiting vamp Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito) – end up at a local dive bar. Celebrating a girls-only weekend, they run into the creepy, middle aged maniac who calls himself Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell). After an eventful evening of cat and mouse, they wind up going head to head with the psycho’s souped up car. A few months later, a quartet of no nonsense chicks – production hairdresser Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), stunt driver Kim (Tracie Thoms), fresh faced actress Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and visiting Kiwi daredevil Zoë (Zoë Bell) – meet up with Mike on a lonely Tennessee back road. He wants to taunt and tease them, using a 100 mile per hour chase as a means of getting acquainted. But unlike the Texas talent, these babes have the ability to fight back. And when they do, Mike will need more than a well armored vehicle to stop the rampage.


As a greatest hits package of every grindhouse conceit ever considered for heating up a local passion pit, QT’s dazzling Death Proof stands as a sensational slice of electrified genre porn. From subversive slasher like violence to 440 horsepower white line fever, it walks the freak show divide between reverence and rip-off so well that we never once feel the obvious nods and callbacks. Taking the best bits of b-movie masterworks like Vanishing Point and Dirty Harry and Crazy Mary among many, many others, the jigsaw genius with a seemingly endless frame of allusion proves his continued dominance of the filmic language. Not only is he rewriting the rule book and all its potential translations, but he’s going back over the work of those that preceded him and giving those movie maxims a good tweak along the way.

For anyone well versed in the original version, there is definitely more meat here. We are treated to a mid-narrative sequence where Mike literally stalks Abernathy and her pals. It’s a peculiar moment, since it seems to indicate that this character’s pathology is based as much in machismo as it is murderous rage. Also enlightening is Arlene – aka “Butterfly’s” – missing scene lap dance. As he does with most music based moments in his film, Tarantino maximizes the effect of this bravura bump and grind. The rest of the material is marginal – little snippets of conversation, extended moments of non-erotic female bonding. Many of these segments do help flesh out previously paltry backstories, as well as give us a chance to hear more of this man’s amazing dialogue.


Indeed, some consider Death Proof far too talky, and for those who think the original cut was verbally overwrought, this version will test their conversational tolerances. From this critic’s standpoint, the wordiness is warranted. Two hours of Stuntman Mike ramming young blonds into his windshield with his modified auto would be an open invitation to misogyny. One can practically hear the PC proponents complaining that QT is a director who hates women. Hardly – but that’s because of the characterization…which comes directly from the girl’s interaction. In fact, it’s easy to see the 30 minute rap sessions as the set up for what will be a huge horror/high speed chase payoff. The car crash that ends section one is remarkable, perhaps the most grotesque display of gear to gal gonzo ever attempted. Even better, the last act street race showdown is spectacular, a stunning reminder of how effective physical effects and real stuntwork can be.


As part of the ample added content on the two disc Extended and Unrated Special Edition DVD, we get lots of how-to featurettes. Tarantino talks openly about wanting to emulate the old school method of machine mayhem, and he introduces us to the masters of such disasters. We also get some insight into the casting process – why Kurt Russell was a genre must and how the various female faces have intriguing lineages all their own. As with most of his movies, our filmmaker is hyper to the point of distraction. He can barely contain his thoughts, and rambles on almost incoherently about the many bows he built into the film. Without a commentary track which actually highlights these hints however (it’s a feature the disc definitely warranted), we occasionally feel lost. Not to worry though. Death Proof works perfectly well without a brain steeped in the blaxploitation/action epics of the Watergate era.


In fact, part of the fun of this fantastic movie is rediscovering these forgotten filmmaking facets sans their outright connections. Of course, there will be those who don’t know them from a Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter sensation or a David F. Friedman flesh feast. If there was one flaw in Tarantino and Rodriguez’s designs, it was assuming that all movie geeks were as goofy for a slice of raincoat revisionism as they were. Part of the problem with Grindhouse as a concept was a lack of proper context and audience perspective. Not everyone in the demo owns the Something Weird Video catalog or rereads The Psychotronic Film Guide like it was a Bible. These novices needed to be immersed in the genre for a while in order to appreciate such worship. Instead, they were tossed into the mix pell mell, and came out confused.


And that’s a shame, because Death Proof has a helluva lot going for it. The performances are flawless, with special recognition going to Russell (who is as terrifying as he is pathetic) and Rosario Dawson, who makes self-effacing cockiness seem downright desirable. Add in Sydney Poitier’s diva dimensions and Zoë Bell’s star making turn and you’ve got a film that easily walks the walk that it talks. Yet it’s Tarantino that once again deserves an equal amount of credit. Only a filmmaker as accomplished as he could take a lamented cinematic style and reinvent it to fit his own diabolical needs. As he did with martial arts in Kill Bill and crime in Reservoir Dogs, Death Proof is ample evidence of this man’s moviemaking prowess. You may bristle at his tricks and transparency, but no one keeps film as kinetic as he does. If anyone could give exploitation a good reputation, it would be this amiable anarchist – and this movie is confirmation of such an artistic acumen.


 


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Saturday, Sep 29, 2007


When the western finally wore out its welcome on both the big and small screens, it required that most reactionary of entertainment ideals – revisionism and/or deconstructionism - to mark it’s marginal return. Beginning with the sensational spaghetti phase, and working through phases both existential and esoteric, filmmakers found hidden facets of the genre, exploiting realism and debunking myth in an attempt to make the category compliant to a contemporary audience. While many still can’t cotton to its outlaw glorification and “violence answers everything” ideal, the creative forces in filmmaking still try to revive its fading fortunes. With a few startling examples – Unforgiven, for example – the horse opera is still considered an artifact of a less sophisticated entertainment era.


Perhaps that explains the lax, almost lost quality of Andrew Dominik’s fascinating if flawed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Not really an oater in the traditional sense, yet restricted by the undying spirit of the wild, wild west, this is a biopic as a beautiful collection of landscapes, a project where vistas and visuals are far more impactful than characters or individual interaction. Instead of giving us reasons to care about the title icons, people who’ve remained intrinsic to the pulp culture collective since fading from physical view, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is hollowed out history. It’s a Ken Burns documentary without all the style and none of the substance. It’s one big long love letter to the notion of a nation without laws, and a stunning example of overreaching aesthetic dismantling a rather decent idea.


Our tale begins with Ford trying to join Jesse’s gang. Brother Frank (a blink and you’ll miss it turn by Sam Shepard) rejects the oddball kid outright, but the celebrated criminal finds his fawning…interesting. After a set piece train robbery, the boys disband, heading to safe houses in and around the Midwest. James meets back with his family, while the Fords - Robert and his older sibling Charley (an excellent Sam Rockwell) – head to their sister’s farm. There, they get involved in various personal problems, including unnecessary romantic relationships, conspiracies against Jesse, and back door deals with local law enforcement. Naturally, James finds out about these transgressions, and uses his own brand of six shooter justice to right the wrongs. As the Fords continue to befriend the seemingly psychotic criminal, it’s clear that James is planning something sinister for his compadres. It is up to Robert to act, even if it means destroying everything he’s ever cared about.


At the core of director Dominik’s take on this material (by way of Ron Hansen’s novel) is the idea that fame always has its flunkies, that even a notorious murderer and criminal like Jesse James would have at least one glorified groupie on the range who’d desperately want to emulate him. Our fanatic is the noted weakling Ford, a spineless sycophant with as many nervous tics as personal problems. He’s an obsessive, a stalker in an era where such menace was begged off as eccentricity, or ignorance. By the time this film finishes setting up the last act killing, it’s not a surprise. Instead, it becomes a natural extension of our current tabloid take on such matters. Ford may seem forced into acting – he’s supposedly saving himself and his brother from James’ unpredictable nature – but his is a response to rejection, not a matter of actual self defense. 


All of this could make a fine film, especially one that never looses its focus to feature unnecessary supporting characters and insignificant subplots. But The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is almost all ancillary players and narrative asides. Whenever we are introduced to a new member of the gang, or walk into the home of a distant relative, Dominik disembarks from the story at hand to bring us backstory, historical context, and expositional explanations. It’s like listening to a lecture by an old time recreationist, complete with a vernacular heavy narration that frequently undermines the mood. No matter how much we enjoy the company of Charley Ford, Wood Hite, Dick Liddil, or Ed Miller, we spend way too much time with them.


And then there is the acting. When it comes to supporting performances, everyone is aces. They bring a nice level of authenticity, never coming across as too contemporary or overly modern. But our stars are scattered to say the least. As James, Brad Pitt decides to invest his killer with a Zen sense of nature, as well as a weird sort of insomnia that only arrives when the story needs him awake. He’s like Jeffrey Goines from 12 Monkeys on personality altering chemicals and a couple of quarts of moonshine. It’s a take that kind of grows on you, as well as a Method maneuver that never really pays off. As Ford, however, Casey Affleck is quirkiness incarnate. When we first meet him, his line readings resemble the disconnected ramblings of a borderline imbecile. His toothy grin and stammering, starstruck qualities are downright creepy. But when viewed in contrast to what Pitt is producing, a sly symbiosis occurs. It’s as if, by allowing his actors to go in totally different directions with their interpretations, Dominik is trying for a single three dimensional whole. And he nearly achieves it.


What he does get right, however, are the gorgeous cinematic compositions that give The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford its optical splendor. While there are rumors swirling around the production of interference from studios and stars (Pitt is an executive here, as well as Ridley Scott), it’s clear than Dominik has an eye for pretty pictures. From the dynamic night robbery with its snow-covered, near monochrome menace to a stunning shot of Jesse riding down a hill toward a guilty co-conspirator’s shack, there are enough evocative sequences here to stir even the most hardened motion picture heart. Yet they continue in the service of a narrative that never comes alive, that fails to fulfill the story’s numerous possibilities, and trudges along tentatively, only to go on for another half hour after the finale.


Oddly enough, the epilogue material is indicative of what’s right – and very wrong – with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. When we learn of the conflicting feelings toward Ford, of how James’ unusual fame produced a clear cut dichotomy between people who loved his criminal bravado and those who suffered at his hands, it’s a fascinating bit of history. Likewise, the stage show where the killing was recreated nightly, plus the eventual backlash that caused Ford to go into hiding, are similarly evocative. Soon however, we realize where the flaw in the film exists. When dealing with James and Ford, their unintentional battle of wills intertwined with their individual shortcomings and psychosis, we get the outline for something truly remarkable. But when viewed in response to the rest of the movie proffered, the reaction is far more muted.


Fact is, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford should have been better. It should have followed the real focus on the story and done away with at least an hour of subplotting. Good work by genial actors just can’t make up for a lack of direction or an overreliance on atmosphere. Director Andrew Dominik gives great mood, and when paired with the right project, the results should be astounding. But this movie is a western for those not steeped in the genres generic trappings, who see majesty in the mundane and brilliance in the disconnected and dour. The only thing epic about this otherwise slight film is its ambition. You can tell that everyone involved thought they were creating a post-modern masterpiece. What we end up with, however, is a collection of pretty canvases without a single gallery conceit to hold them all together. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford could have been heroic. As it stands, it’s nothing but scattered.



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