Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Thursday, Oct 11, 2007


Michael Clayton is a good film. An undeniably well acted and impassioned effort. It represents the combined creativity of individuals known for their solid celluloid reputations and uses its post-modern passivity as a way around the standard thriller genre formulas. With multinational scandals involving Halliburton and Enron still fresh in the public’s frame of reference, its ‘big business vs. the undeniable truth’ dynamic has all the ear markings of a considered crowd pleaser. And then there are the performances – rock hard examples of motion picture Methodology that speak to the talent inherent in the upper echelons of the profession. So Michael Clayton is a lot of things – somber, menacing, heartfelt, and heroic. It tells an intriguing tale in a wonderfully evocative manner. Unfortunately, there is one thing that it’s not – and that’s great.


Most films with this much quality and caliber behind them usually find ways to reach a kind of creative convergence. Like the movie it’s most akin to – Sidney Lumet’s masterful The Verdict – there’s a strange subjective synchronicity that occurs. Everything blends – the acting, the script, the direction, the art design, the subplots, the supporting players, even the seemingly insignificant sequences - to propel us from point A to point B on a cushion of able aesthetic air. Michael Clayton doesn’t contain this. Instead, it’s an overwritten work that reaches beyond its corporate intrigue basics to address issues both metaphysical and downright meaningless. The immense amount of aptitude inherent in everyone involved is a huge benevolent barricade to overcome. But first time feature filmmaker Tony Gilroy (responsible for the coolly kinetic scripts for the Bourne franchise) lets tangents and unnecessary histrionics mar what would otherwise be a winning awards season home run.


Our plot begins in the middle, with the title character (played with angst driven darkness by a great George Clooney) locked in mid-meltdown. The high level New York law firm, where he works as a ‘fixer’ – read: solver of the unsolvable problems - has been involved in a massive class action civil suit for the last six years. They represent the corrupt chemical firm U/North, a faceless international agricultural conglom that’s accused of poisoning the people of small farms all throughout the United States. Thanks to the maverick decisions of senior partner Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) however, the pre-litigation process has dragged on and on, providing lots of billable hours. One day, the man loses his mind, stripping naked in the middle of a deposition and spewing semi-psychotic rhetoric. Even with his history of manic depression, Clayton recognizes something is significantly wrong. The crackup calls into question the firm’s ability to represent their client, and this causes U/North’s in-house council (Tilda Swinton) to panic. She calls in her own group of ‘maintenance’ men, who have much deadlier ways of dealing with this kind of concern.


From that description alone, Michael Clayton appears masterful. It has the look of legitimate Oscar bait, from its muted cinematography and sweeping compositional grandeur to the moments of individual nuance, as when Swinton’s stressed out witch sweats through her clothes during a bathroom panic attack. Yet combating those stylistic strategies is dialogue that’s dripping with freshly scribbled insignificance, rants meant to sound formidable but end up appearing rather surreal. Since we don’t meet Wilkinson’s eccentric attorney until he’s already swung over to the demented dark side, we have little to compare against his ever present speechifying. There’s no balance to his nuttiness, no way of seeing beyond the bare ass brimstone caught on tape. While he’s an intriguing catalyst for all that will come, he’s hollow as the center of self-righteous indignation.


Clooney is much better at metering out morality while avoiding its ethical sting. When we first meet Clayton, he’s in the midst of a hit and run jam. Setting right a priggish client who expects miracles instead of a visit from the police, we get the standard reactionary riot act. But then Gilroy gives Clooney an additional moment, a chance to give this jerk a definitive dressing down that underscores his overall dissatisfaction with his job. Like a superhero for screw-ups, Clayton is an overworked wizard, and the procedural aspects of his job would make a stellar suspense flick in their own right. But our screenwriting savant can’t leave well enough alone. He has to pile on the problems – gambling, indebtedness, bad business sense, a drug addled brother, pain in the butt ex, seldom seen son, and a glum, unforgiving family. By the time our lead discovers the cabal plotting against him, we sense its purpose could come from a dozen different interpersonal directions.


Oddly enough, it’s the supporting parts that help keep things in check. Sydney Pollack plays a partner with a combination of tenacity and culpability. He recognizes how crooked his firm is, but also senses that things haven’t reached John Grisham territory – at least not yet. Michael O’Keefe is excellent as the asshole that sees through everyone while compelled to hurl those harmful glass house stones, and Sean Cullen is cool if cranky as Michael’s less than understanding cop sibling. Since they appear only briefly and must make their impact immediately, Gilroy doesn’t goof around. He keeps these ancillary facets tight and direct. It’s in stark contrast to one of the movie’s more disturbing subplots – the fact that Wilkinson’s character appears to be indirectly seducing the teenage sister of one of the plaintiffs.  While it may be nothing more than a case of insanity fueled white knighthood, there is a creepy, near pedophilic vibe to the material that makes us uncomfortable.


Besides, Michael Clayton doesn’t really need to go and push those buttons. It’s already overstocked with far too many possible dramatics. It doesn’t have to expand into faulty fringe elements or disturbing depravity. But Gilroy trips up and gives in to the temptation to expand whenever the magnifying muse calls, and the story starts to unravel about halfway through. All the late night cellphone calls and dirt digging may seem suspenseful, but when placed aside a man who screams about saving innocence, our corporate counsel with hitmen on her speed dial, and a protagonist who will play all sides against each other to complete the mandatory last act comeuppance, it becomes ambiguous. Maybe post-millennial audiences will respond to a movie that appears incapable of maintaining a single, strong focus. They’re probably used to such ADD styled situations from their own personal plight.


Still, Michael Clayton does offer some entertainment heft. It anticipates our expectations and prepares an answer in advance. It sees human foibles as badges of honor, and views the standard business model as an evil means to an always criminal ends. As a main man crush, Clooney could cobble together a series of scenes based on the phone book and viewers would still find him imminently fascinating. It’s to Gilroy’s good fortune that he agreed to hop on board. Without him, this otherwise fractured non-noir would turn tumbleweed and simply blow away. Everything here adds up to a wonderful mainstream achievement. Sadly, there’s very little art or its mastery to be found.



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Thursday, Oct 4, 2007


It begins with an intriguing premise. In the 1970s, Leroy “Nicky” Barnes ran Harlem’s drug trafficking empire. A slick, savvy street entrepreneur, he created a dynasty rivaled only by those created in fictional Hollywood crime flicks. Along with his crew of dapper associates – who called themselves The Council – he used the mostly black community as a basis for a borough wide organization of sale and distribution. Working closely with the Italians, and using as much muscle as necessary to maintain his turf, Barnes flaunted his illegally gained power right in front of the police. Yet no matter how hard they tried, no matter what angle they pursued, they couldn’t take down this urban Don. It earned him a nickname that would eventually lead to his downfall – Mr. Untouchable.


And then the mystery deepens. Barnes disappeared in the mid ‘80s for reasons that are unexplained at first. As we ponder the implication of such a vanishing, we hear his accomplices discuss their feelings. Then another voice is heard, and a dark figure is shown sitting in a fancy corporate boardroom. As the conversation continues, we realize what’s happening. After decades, documentary filmmaker Marc Levin (The Protocols of Zion) has managed to track down the elusive thug, and after years outside the limelight, Barnes is ready to reclaim a small, shadowy bit of it. Never shown full on, with only his hands and cuffed shirt sleeves visible, the anonymous figure explains his rise from junkie to ghetto superstar – and the reasons for his current state of anonymity.


Potentially undermined by the Ridley Scott/ Denzel Washington/ Russell Crowe drama that’s arriving in theaters this November (American Gangster), Mr. Untouchable is still a compelling, if confused, expose. It focuses on the often argued place that African American drug dealers have/had on addicting their race to various nefarious narcotics. In Barnes’ case, it was coke and heroin. Yet there was something equally potent that this pusher was selling – the concept of fiscal reliability and communal respect via shady criminal enterprises. Marginalized due to their minority status and left to rot in places white society had long since flown from, the metropolitan maelstrom that Barnes functioned in was ripe for a reconfiguration. And with their chic clothes and bad ass persona, the local racketeer became the new inner city icon.


It’s not hard to see why. During the opening third of this frequently spellbinding doc, we see pimped out players, incredibly hot honeys hanging off their arm like smoking sexual accessories. As the talking head interviews pile up, we get a portrait of Upper East Side New York during the height of its now mythic meltdown. We see ex-addicts discuss Barnes’ generous spirit and his organization’s desire to reach out to the community. While naked women cut cocaine (stripped in order to keep them from stealing) and codes of conduct and ethics are explained, the overall image begins to get blurry. By the time our central subject returns, cloaked persona spewing Machiavellian bon mots about power and perseverance, we understand the decidedly mixed message. On the one hand, Barnes is viewed as a DIY demagogue, an example of ‘by the bootstraps’ survival. But he’s also responsible for the death and/or murder of many in his neighborhood, providing the various poisons that would eventually destroy them all.


It’s a contentious, controversial approach, and for the most part, Levin does little to mitigate it. Similar to Scarface in such American dreaming subtext, Mr. Untouchable wants the charismatic to override the criminal. When convicted money launderer Joseph “Jazz” Hayden speaks his mind, he’s portrayed as philosophical, not felonious. Similarly, “Scrap” Batts lays down the law when in comes to honor and street code. Yet he’s still a part of an illegal enterprise that shattered more lives than it ever benefited – and all that goodness was mostly aimed inward, towards Barnes and his crew. Mr. Untouchable doesn’t glamorize the trade as much as excuse it, showing how isolated individuals can become from the consequences of their actions. Even our subject seems oblivious. When, toward the end, he admits to flooding Harlem with dope, he waves off the implied aftermath as if it was a necessary pitfall of the business plan.


Then there is the overall truth of what’s being told. If you believe Mr. Untouchable, Nicky Barnes was the only major drug dealer in Harlem during the period. He was the focus of every DEA agent, all the US attorneys, local law enforcement and the New York media. When supposed rival Frank Lucas is mentioned, he is instantly dismissed as a Southern rube with a dumbbell drawl and a less than effective organization. Oddly enough, it’s the same argument made in American Gangster, except with Barnes replacing Lucas as the unimportant fringe nuisance. It creates a weird dichotomy, aside from figuring which side is right. Naturally, both films are going to focus on their central thesis and minimize the importance of anything outside its own sphere of import. And Mr. Untouchable does give Barnes the last word on almost every subject. But if Lucas was such a lackey, why should anyone make a movie about him?


The answer is fairly obvious – this is Barnes’ tale, and he would never agree to sharing the spot. At times, Mr. Untouchable feels like a promotional tool for the mysterious man’s tell-all tome of the same name. Everything is filtered through his own unique perspective, and even when others contradict or flat out reject the man’s readings, Levin leaves us with Barnes’ interpretations. This doesn’t diminish the documentary’s power. In fact, we get wrapped up in the wonderful soul soundtrack of the era (much of it coming courtesy of the late, great Curtis Mayfield) and enjoy the nostalgic look back at the Big Apple as a city under siege. Though the last two decades of Barnes’ life are skipped over with sly sonic cues – disco to hip hop to new jack swing to gansta rap – the early ‘70s receives a grand cinematic workout. Even when the film flinches, the images don’t.


Still, Mr. Untouchable will always remain a mere part of the overall story. At 90 minutes, Levin barely has time to hit the highlights. And with access to a man many thought dead, or simply financially capable of disappearing, it’s hard to fiddle with your focal point. It’s a coup that both colors and undercuts this narrative, leaving gaps where full disclosure should rule. Yet despite these random miscues, Barnes remains a compelling if oblique, topic and the movie made of his notoriety rises above its inherent inconsistencies to offer a riveting ride through Me Decade drug despair. Landing the elusive man was indeed a cinematic scoop. Failing to force a confrontation may be Mr. Untouchable’s main blunder, but it’s really no surprise. Nicky Barnes has been avoiding responsibility his entire life. Why change now? Obviously, his nickname is well earned.


 


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Thursday, Oct 4, 2007


Redundancy quickly kills even the most fitting flight of fantasy. Without imagination, or at least some level of innovation, a tale formed by magic/myth feels stale and unoriginal. True, when you boil it down to the basics, what you’re dealing with is the standard good vs. evil paradigm, and one man’s Ewoks are another’s furry footed hobbits. But the key to a successful movie of this type it to avoid the formulaic and cliché to present something new – or something that, at first glance, appears unanticipated and novel. Such is the case with The Seeker: The Dark is Rising. Based on a series of books by Susan Cooper, this tale of the ages old struggle between The Light and The Dark should feel rote and preordained. But thanks to some interesting performances, a basically believable script, and a fine sense of scope, this kid friendly ersatz take on the Arthurian legend actually works – at least, for a while.


We are introduced to young Will Stanton (Alexander Ludwig) as he shuffles out of his UK school. An American by birth, he has recently arrived in England with his extended family - which includes a somber dad, a well meaning mother, five fabulously conceited older brothers, and a beholden little sister. About to turn 14, Will feels disconnected from his kin, lost in a world of private thoughts and personal questions. On Christmas Eve, he is invited to Miss Greythorne’s spectacular manor, where he is approached by her valet, Merriman Lyon (a wonderful Ian McShane). It is then that he learns of his lineage. As the seventh son of a seventh son, Will is the new Seeker, a special envoy of The Light, a bastion for all that is good in the world. With the help of the Old Ones (including Lyon and Greythorne) he will discover the signs that keep The Dark at bay. And good thing to, for evil’s envoy, in the form of the redolent Rider (a creepy Christopher Eccleston) is back after 1000 years to take over the world.


Though it frequently feels like its missing most of its formative folklore, and trails off into fits of formless meandering about two thirds of the way through, The Seeker is actually a rather good ripping yarn. Helmed by untested talent David L. Cunningham, whose resume reads like the opposite career arc for anyone attempting an F/X heavy narrative, and skimming only the barest of bones from Cooper’s complex books, the results are intriguing, if not wholly functional. While entertaining, the movie misses many chances at being downright superb. Part of the problem lies in the hero’s hormonal rages. By changing Will’s age from 11 (as in the books) to 14, and making him a slightly snotty American (vs. a Potter-esque Brit), he may become more identifiable to the intended demographic, but his occasional fits of forced puppy love can be joyless to behold. He’s a kid clearly controlled by the onset of puberty.


In addition, the main catalyst for our story – the fated role of Seeker and his traveling through time to retrieve the so-called signs – is given relatively short shrift, especially for a proposed epic. In some cases, Will hops into the past, performs a perfunctory duty, and toddles off. More time to play sibling rivalries with his far too cloying family, or make cow eyes with plot point Maggie Barnes, one imagines. Indeed, at several instances throughout The Seeker, the viewer recalls the E! Entertainment Executive from Knocked Up with his perennially perky advice to “tighten up”. This is a movie overloaded with filler, sequences that do nothing except establish mood and underline the mystic. While the tired trick used to realize the movement across the continuum reeks of a lack of imagination (the camera swirls around the participants and – WHOOSH! – we’re watching Vikings pillage), the rest of the movie tries its damnedest to amaze.


And we buy it. Mostly the result of the excellent performances and Cunningham’s ability to maintain pace and production value, The Seeker survives its occasional hindrances. Ian McShane, former Deadwood denizen, is wonderful as the mandatory mentor character. His stuffy gruffness helps moderate Will Stanton’s spoiled surliness. Similarly striking is Frances Conroy as the bespeckled Ms. Greythrone and James Cosmo as a big burly bear of an Old One named Dawson. They make a formidable group in aid of their young protégé. As our lead, Alexander Ludwig, is good but not great. He tends to literally act his age, appearing immature and inflexible more than brave and triumphant. His reactions of awe and wonder are well done, and his action adventure mantle is realistic if rather untested. In essence, Ludwig simply has to show up and appear able and the movie can work with it. He manages that conceit rather well.


But for some reason, the movie just can’t maintain all of its formidable forward momentum. Part of the problem is Christopher Eccleston’s lack of villainy. He looks the part, and summons CGI smoke and fowl with the best of them, but he’s never really a formidable challenge or threat. He seems easily outsmarted and never fated to win. Without a danger, he’s only harmless fodder, all talk and no real peril. The set piece scenes where nature is manipulated into portents of terror (killer icicles, fatal floods) work much better. They give us a real sense of danger, and deliver on the film’s fantasy promise with great enthusiasm. It’s just too bad that Cunningham couldn’t cut to the chase more often. The origin-oriented nature of the situation being explained frequently undermines this film’s concept of fun. And when dealing with elements both outrageous and unrealistic, amusement is a necessary nuance.


Still, The Seeker gives much more than it drains away, packing enough visual intrigue and interpersonal suspense to sustain even the most fidgety film fan. Granted, those obsessed with Copper’s books will be baffled by the numerous changes, exclusions, and additions, and as potential foundations for franchises go, this one misses many opportunities to guarantee a sequel. Still, one finds themselves lost in the world created by Cunningham, a place of warm fires, comforting countrysides, and upper crust British attitudes. So what if all the pieces aren’t properly in place. Who cares if our sorcerer in training is more Harry Smith than Potter. Does it really matter if the storyline stumbles while never really building up a decent level of showmanship? The answer is inherent in the ends. The Seeker should slowly submerge and sink under its many mundane facets. Instead, thanks to a little movie magic all its own, if finds a way to win us over.


 


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Thursday, Oct 4, 2007


It’s time for Ben Stiller to hang it up. Time for him to take his smug self-deprecating smarm and pack it in, along with the pointless pratfalls, the perplexed looks, and the pre-planned pop culture references. None of it works anymore – as a matter of fact, it hasn’t functioned successfully since he was riffing on Bono and Tom Cruise as part of his failed Fox sketch comedy series. At this point in his superstar status, he’s got enough money to make himself comfortable, and even if he doesn’t, his elderly dad’s F-you cash from Seinfeld and King of Queens will make a nice inheritance. So here’s hoping this normative force in funny business gets the message and moves along. That way, we won’t have to put up with his incredibly awful antics in mindless movies like this latest Farrelly Brothers flop.


The Heartbreak Kid – though why it would want to call itself that, seeing as how it slanders the legacy left behind by the Neil Simon/Elaine May original – is a disaster, an unmitigated humorless horror that never once plays as raunchy or as outrageous as it thinks it is. Realizing that their patented gross out scheme has long been usurped by others more adept at balancing the believable with the bawdy (read: the Apatow contingent), the men behind such hit or miss concoctions as Me, Myself, and Irene, Stuck on You, and Fever Pitch have managed to make the worst film of their careers – and that’s saying a lot for the guys behind Osmosis Jones. Using extremes like excuses and shouting where a script should be, this guaranteed to please the least demanding of audiences atrocity is a perfect illustration for why Mr. Freaks and Geeks and his party posse had to step in and save cinematic comedy. Without their Superbad life support, an effort like this would have been fatal.


Our sad, superficial story starts with 40 year old idiot Eddie Cantrow (the aforementioned Stiller). Unlucky in love – or perhaps a better way to put it is that he’s so emotionally inert that he makes amoebas seem like sharp, on the ball boyfriends – and unsure if he will ever wed, he decides to give romance one more chance when he falls head over horniness for smoking blond babe Lila (a wasted turn by Malin Akerman). At first, everything is dew drops and butterfly kisses. This new gal seems spectacular, and Eddie’s married pal Mac (Rob Corddry) and sex starved Dad (Jerry Stiller) want him tying the knot. But it’s not until Lila announces a potential job relocation to Rotterdam that our hero gets up the chutzpah to go nuptial. On his honeymoon, our numbskull newlywed learns the awful truth – Lila is a menace. She’s a sexually strange ex-coke whore with a deviated septum, gaseous genitals, and the manners of a rabid sugar glider. Even worse, she’s massively in debt, hopelessly insecure, and clingy as Hell.


Fast forward five minutes or so and Eddie realizes he’s the proverbial fool who jumped in - and there’s nary a wise man in sight. All he can find is Uncle Tito (a painfully unfunny Carlos Mencia), a local Mexican concierge who has a strange habit of making inappropriate comments out of jest. Even more depressing, Eddie befriends Miranda, a sweet and wonderful belle from Mississippi who appears to be his real soulmate. While her family is suspicious of his motives, the couple eventually falls for each other. Of course, Lila is still in the picture, and she’s not about to give up her man. And if and when the skit hits the fan, there’s bound to be some outrageous post-consummation problems. All Eddie wants is a chance at happiness. Too bad he didn’t think about that before leaping into a marriage with a psycho stranger. Sadly, anyone – including those in the audience - who witness this interpersonal fiasco is fated to pay – and pay dearly.


It is nearly impossible to describe how hopelessly terrible this so-called slopstick really is. Instead of developing a few believable characters and then making them act in surreal, excessively extreme ways, the Farrellys come up with the gruesome gags first, and then try to fit them into the narrative unabated. No explanation. No motivation. No connection to anything remotely resembling reality. Such a disturbing disconnect means that the movie has to work three times harder to deliver anything close to comedy. The viewer has to get over the abject abruptness, along with the lack of identifiable humanity, before ever nearing the realm of the satiric. The Heartbreak Kid is overrun with such jarring, jumbled moments. One minute our characters are having a stereotypical “wives are shrews” conversation. The next, they are discussing the particulars of pounding p****.


Besides, the majority of the material is not new or novel. For every setpiece that pushes the overhyped envelope (Lila urinating on Eddie to kill a jellyfish sting), there are a dozen scenes of senseless sameness, times when brazen curse words are called upon, fat people are mocked, and Southerners are labeled as hot tempered rednecks. Lila’s idea of appropriateness may not be socially acceptable, but she’s far closer to the fame whore mentality of our tenuous TMZ nation than Eddie’s wide-eyed doltish optimism. The original Heartbreak Kid had a real edge to it. All the characters were craven in their self-centered and social climbing desires. Here, no one is nasty. Our hero is a lox, his new wife is a weirdo, and his proposed new honey is a slightly snarky hoot. No one is out to hurt anyone’s feelings. Instead, they want to beat around the bush as much as possible, if only to allow the filmmakers to make yet another lousy lady parts joke.


Even worse, the movie is pitched so wildly over into the doubtful dynamic that you can’t believe most of what you are seeing. Lila’s mandatory sunburn (how else can Eddie get out of the hotel to womanize) resembles the results of nuclear fallout, and her screwed up sinuses permit gallons of goo – and the occasionally piece of Carne Asada – to weep from her nostril. It’s not hilarious, it’s harrowing. Similarly, Eddie spends 45 minute mooning over Miranda. Yet as the title cards indicate the passage of time, he appears to be less obsessed and more absent minded. Without spoiling the so-called ‘surprise’, our lead does something so unconscionably dumb that one wonders how he manages the motor skills to dress himself in the morning. No one is ordinary here, and before you start bellyaching about comedy being a genre of the bizarre, there is a fine line between credible and cockamamie. The Farrellys always manage to find the divide and defecate all over it.


As for the actors, only Akerman manages to acquit herself. She tries everything short of bribery to make Lila somewhat likeable, and even with all her hissy fit phoniness, we see some heart at the center of the severity. Michelle Monaghan, on the other hand, is less than triumphant. Thinking that a cocked head and slight smirk will qualify as a third dimension, she’s rather vague as a potential cosmic paramour. Carlos Mencia should sue – or at the very least, steal every supposed snicker written for him. It’s no more racist than the routines he does on his Comedy Central showcase. And someone needs to shut the senior Stiller up right now. He can’t do crude effectively, and when he swears, it’s like the first time he’s ever heard those words, let alone spoken them aloud. But no one is worse than ol’ sonny boy. Bland Ben is Night at the Museum noxious here, almost immobile in his co called wittiness. It’s enough to make you wish for the days when he was a bad boy toy circa 1990’s Stella.


Still, like the craven Chris Tucker and the clueless Adam Sandler, the Farrellys never went broke underestimated the intelligence of their target audience. The adolescent males who will make a beeline to the Bijou the minute this movie opens will split a side chortling at every non-PC pronouncement and huff their puffing during the many hard R sex scenes. The frat boy level of laughs will strike a similar sophomoric chord, and keggers will be kinetic with talk of the classic “kitty ring” reveal. Of course, none of this makes The Heartbreak Kid artistically valid. It doesn’t even turn it into a redeemable entertainment. Instead, it’s further proof that no one does desperate and dour better than our man Ben. Here’s hoping he retires sooner than later. We don’t need his gloom and doom humor clogging up comedy anymore.



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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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