#65 - The Adventures of GOG and Wonder Twin!
1914 - 2007
Welcome back, movie fans. Didja miss me? If you did, you’re crazy. The past month saw a serious case of Jahnke Overload with the daily Hell Plaza Oktoberfest series at The Bits. For those of you who doubted my ability to write a daily column while continuing to write a weekly one, (A) thanks for your confidence and (B) it must get boring being right all the time.
Anyway, the Electric Theatre is back open for business. We’re going to ease into things since I’m still suffering from a mild case of critics’ apathy following the Oktoberfest extravaganza. The bad news is that a couple of these movies have been around for awhile so you may have already seen them or have missed your chance. The good news is they’re all quite good and worth your time. In fact, let’s call this the first-ever A-Picture Triple Header. To be fair, we’ll go in alphabetical order since I’m all about fair play.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
When I first started hearing about this movie, people were telling me I’d like it because it was reminiscent of the works of director Terrence Malick. This actually had the opposite effect on me because I’m not a great fan of Malick’s. I think most of his films are beautiful but ponderous in the extreme with too little reward to justify the lengthy stretches of tedium. That said, I completely understand the comparison. In many ways, this movie is what I’ve always wanted a Malick movie to be like. It is long. It is beautiful to look at. But it’s also absolutely gripping from start to finish and fascinating on an emotional, intellectual and visceral level. Odds are you already know the story here. If you don’t, read the title. Brad Pitt stars as the legendary outlaw, turning in a performance of surprising ferocity and not-so-surprising charm. Pitt’s good but the real shocker here is Casey Affleck as Robert Ford. Affleck does something pretty extraordinary. He simultaneously makes Ford into a sympathetic character while making the audience fully understand why people just don’t like him. That’s a tricky combination to pull off but Affleck manages it. His idolization and eventual betrayal of Jesse comes across as sweet, sad, petulant, heartbreaking and grandstanding, often at the same time. It’s an extraordinary piece of acting that should eliminate any lingering doubts about Affleck’s abilities. Director Andrew Dominik, whose previous film was the largely unheralded but brilliant Australian crime drama Chopper, orchestrates the proceedings with a keen eye and sharp dramatic sense. He knows that the title tells the story and fills every moment leading up to the fateful shot with a mournful sense of destiny. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is lush and beautiful, although without Dominik’s storytelling ability and the performances of Pitt, Affleck, Sam Rockwell and the rest of the top-drawer cast, it would be nothing but a series of pretty pictures. The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is not your typical western. This is a smart, rich film that demands you pay attention and rewards it in kind. It’s one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had at the movies this year. (* * * ½)
Legal thrillers and courtroom dramas are not typically my cup of tea. At best, I tend to find them vaguely diverting but hardly compelling. At worst, they’re so full of contrived histrionics that even I realize that they bear no more resemblance to the way the law actually works than a classroom presentation prepared by a group of idealistic third-graders would. Michael Clayton is an extraordinary exception, a smart, sophisticated drama that makes the unheard of assumption that the audience is intelligent and patient enough to follow along. George Clooney stars as Clayton, a “fixer” for a prestigious law firm whose life has reached a crisis point. He’s broke and in dire financial straits thanks to an ill-advised restaurant venture that was supposed to be his ticket out of his bottom-feeding job. Just when things seemingly couldn’t get any worse, he’s handed an impossible task. A friend and colleague (Tom Wilkinson) suffers a mental collapse, stripping naked during a deposition and secretly working to undermine the multi-billion dollar class action lawsuit he’s supposed to be representing. It’s up to Clayton to bring him back under control. Michael Clayton marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Tony Gilroy and he proves himself to be a steady and efficient filmmaker. It’s shot with a director’s eye and a writer’s mind, with a number of scenes that would seem to be tangential but are in fact vitally important to understanding the title character. Clooney is at the top of his game here, leading a fantastic cast including great work from Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton and Sydney Pollack. Michael Clayton is the sort of movie that went out of fashion sometime in the 1970s. It’s a slick Hollywood production that also happens to be an intelligent, well-crafted character study.
(* * * ½)
No Country for Old Men
Joel and Ethan Coen are often taken to task for favoring style over substance, a criticism that has often struck me as wholly unfounded. Sure, they’re responsible for some of the most visually dazzling movies in recent years. But one look at Barton Fink, Fargo or The Man Who Wasn’t There should be enough to convince you that there’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye. Even something like The Big Lebowski has considerably more depth than simply a collection of flashy camera moves and clever, endlessly quotable dialogue. Their latest effort, an adaptation of the novel by Cormac McCarthy, ranks right up there with their most accomplished work. Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, a welder who stumbles across the scene of a drug-related massacre in the middle of Texas. He finds a satchel full of money and takes it, making himself the target of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), an “ultimate badass” who totes around an air gun. Investigating and trying to make sense of the brutality he witnesses is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), a lawman contemplating retirement. On a certain level, No Country For Old Men is a cool, exciting crime thriller told with the usual Coen flair. And it’s easy to get caught up in that and miss the little details that make the ambiguous, open-ended final scenes so compelling. At the screening I attended, I heard nothing but complaints about the movie’s “unsatisfying” resolution. For my money, it’s those final scenes that make the movie worth sitting through. Cool and exciting crime movies are a dime a dozen but No Country For Old Men asks you to put in a little more effort and think about things. In some ways, the Coens may be doing their job too well in the early scenes, focusing on Bardem’s chilling performance and staging action and suspense sequences with their usual flair. But if I’ve learned anything from over 20 years of watching the Coens’ movies, it’s that their movies will grow on you with repeat viewings. Stylish, well-crafted filmmaking and thought-provoking storytelling are not mutually exclusive. It’s OK to be dazzled by the Coens’ virtuosity behind the camera. Just don’t let it blind you to the thought that goes into the writing. (* * * ½)