Autumn this time around has produced several extraordinary and unique films that I have yet to write about much at all. So, I thought it was high time.
First, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”:
“Assassination” is a remarkable film and one I have thought about often since I saw it a few months ago. It plays almost like a western-noir, what with its fantastic use of low lighting and high contrasts, and its dark and psychological subject matter. Yet, director Andrew Dominick manages to capture that noir-esque feel whilst still vividly and beautiful capturing the setting of the film. The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous – reminiscent, as many have pointed out, of Terence Malick’s films, in some ways. However, I think that Malick dealt more in the realm of the abstract and employed directly obvious metaphor than Dominick does here. But what Dominick does well is capture the ambiguous nature of the American landscape (beauty/danger paradox) to mirror the ambiguous nature of the film’s characters, particular Jesse James, played by Brad Pitt, and Robert Ford, depicted by Casey Affleck. And indeed James is an amibguous character. In real life he was a terribly polarizing figure, an early American celebrity, the stuff of legends – or at least the pulp novel legends. Dominick and Pitt capture James brilliantly – he is both brave and afraid, violent and compassionate, full of love and full of hate: though indeed, we all are. Ae we not? Despite his ruthlessness and his violent behavior he was a hero to many. Even in the late 1800’s America was infatuted with celebrity. And the film is, in large part, about celebrity, I think. Why are we drawn to certain people? What do we really think of celebrities? What causes us to become jealous of them? What are we willing to do to become famous ourselves? And each of these questions is hugely important in American society today.
As I mentioned Pitt plays James very well, but Casey Affleck (yepp, the younger brother of Ben) really steals many of the films scenes. His Ford is an awkward, star struck, and jealous kid, in over his head, and comepletely enchanted by the legend that is Jesse James, forgetting that Jesse James the man exists too. In support, Paul Schneider (Lars and the Real Girl), Sam Rockwell (Matchstick Men), and Sam Shepherd (Don’t Come Knocking) turn in solid performances.
“Assassination” is a must see, a near five star film. Be prepared, however, for a purposefully slowly paced film – it is a western and contains all the markings of one, but it is no “3:10 to Yuma” or something of that kind. It is a character study and a psychological treatise on the human condition.
Also: “Dan In Real Life”
Steven Carell’s newest film, helmed by Peter Hedges (“Pieces of April”), is a pleasant and humorous relationship film: boy/girl, parent/child, brother/sister, etc. Carell plays a widower father of three girls who writes advice columns for a newspaper. The film centers around a family get away to an out of the way cabin near a coastal town. While on this vacation Carell, whose daughters are, for various reasons, exasperated with their father, decides to go for a drive for a while. He goes to a bookstore (and a nice looking one at that) where he meets a beautiful, intelligent woman (played by European actress Juliette Binoche — “Chocolat”, “Three Colours:Blue”) with whom he pretty much immediately becomes infatuated. The story rolls from there, full of family squabbles, broken hearts, mended hearts, family shenanigans, and the music of Sondre Lerche. There isn’t a whole lot to complain about in this film, but neither is there much about which to get excited. It is fairly predictable, all in all. One few thing though: no family actually acts the way this family does. At least, mine sure doesn’t and if yours does my guess is that you would prefer they quit.
Again, “Dan In Real Life” is a pleasant film: a good date movie, or perhaps a family rental. Even just a good, relaxing, escapist piece of entertainment. There is very little that is supremely profound here. But there are pleasant little truths, everyday reminders that can help life be that much more enjoyable. And if you like Sondre Lerche than you absolutely must see this film. He has WAY more than his fair share of screen time and/or sound time.
3 out of 5 stars.
Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to mention Wes Anderson’s “The Darjeeling Limited.”
This is such a unique and interesting film. In some ways its very typical of other Anderson films: hip, intelligent, literary, and full of plenty of angst. If “Dan In Real Life” is about a happy family, then this film, and almost all of Anderson’s films for that matter are somewhere on the opposite end of the spectrum. Once again, Anderson deals with themes of family, loyalty, failure, doubt. Its best described as a whimsical road film, i think.
“Darjeeling” is overtly metaphorical; filled with extensive and obviousl symbolism, the film seems to have no intention of hiding its themes away somewhere in the dark recesses of the script or the warped minds of the characters. Thats not to say that the characters don’t have warped minds, or that the script isn’t multi-layerd. Both are true, but Anderson seems to have a specific message of hope-in-the-face-of-failure, and in telling his story with such a whimsical and playful style he is able to get across his ideas, without making us weary. Actually, the film is quite funny, hilarious at times, all the while remaining touching and thought provoking. Anderson fans know, however, that Anderson humor is of a different brand. Anderson laughs are a difference kind of laughs. They’re laughs with a twinge, the kind that come with a slight wince – where you almost want to look away, yet you can’t because the characters are so darned endearing – or at least, well, you wish they could become endearing because if they were they would be your best friend and so you spend the whole movie, and dozens of subsequent re-watches, rooting for them to change and grow up and become that endearing best friend. Yeah, well, this movie is like that too.
Once again, Anderson, employs his trademark, unique style and it’s never looked better. India, where the film takes place in large part, and Anderson do eachother justice. They look quite nice together. “Darjeeling” is rich with emotion and heart and smarts – and it test the emotions and heart and smarts of viewers too. As such it is a fantastic and mezmorising experience in cinema. Its a film worth studying closely or just sitting back and enjoying. Its great for film students or just fans of good films. I can’t say that its neccessarily better than Tennanbaums, but I am beginning to lean that way.
Adrian Brody, Owen Wilson, and Jason Schwartsman are all great – though each seems to just play someone very similar to themselves, which, when it comes down it, is ok with me. That’s more or less true of most of Anderson’s films.
Check it out if you haven’t yet.
4 out of 5 stars.