Tag Archives: the assassination of jesse james

Interlude 3: The Counselor, Anonymous, Her, Magic Mike and Jesse James.

3 Jul

(Still writing and rewriting, tweaking, in the guts of a manuscript, pouring as much gasoline as I can into the sentences, always looking for electricity. And, to be honest, I’ve been struggling with the first absolute of writing, “Apply ass to chair.”)

1.

The Counselor isn’t a film. It isn’t a Cormac McCarthy[1] novel either. It’s a fatalistic information system, with little context, bad music, and an invisible plot.

Ridley Scott is too reverent of McCarthy’s script. I’m certain—I read some of the treatment when it was published in the New Yorker—that the screenplay is a good read. But on screen it’s both too slow and yet too short, and in the end, incoherent and stupid.

The script is too tidy. Anything mentioned in the first half becomes manifest in the second. There’s lots of sermonizing. Ominous portents. Silly warnings. Little speeches. But they don’t feel connected to anything. Some scenes go on too long. Others are cut short. Still others are in the film for no real reason, while important scenes that would have established the characters and mood are missing. As it is, the movie feels like an indie art film gone horribly wrong. Or a big budget movie where the producers ran out of cash midway through production and said, what the hell, let’s just slap what we have onto the screen. Fuck it.

Michael Fassbinder, a fabulous actor, looks lost. Cameron Diaz is horrid. Penelope Cruz tries hard but has a thin role. And Javier Bardem isn’t sure what kind of character he’s playing, a wolf, a dangerous man, a good friend, a worried lover, a hustler, so his performance stumbles out like a hot mess. Brad Pitt does fine, but his character is ill-defined, too. Rosie Perez is great, but why is she in the movie?

It looks good, but it isn't. So very, very bad.

It looks good, but it isn’t. So very, very bad.

They all stumble their way through the film, interspersed with shots of a sewage truck carrying twenty million dollars worth of dope. The pieces seem to fit together, but under the barest scrutiny the movie falls apart. It makes no sense. Large chunks of story are absent. The catalyst for the action is invisible. People talk, and then people start dying. The scenes are lacking basic dramatic tension, as well as humor. (Which fans of McCarthy, like me, will find shocking.)

And the cheetahs. Lots of shots of two goddamn cheetahs. We get it: man is another predator; it’s a kill or be killed world; blah blah blah. Cameron Diaz, to further drive the point home, has a gold incisor, cheetah paws tattooed on her back, and wears a variety of predator patterns on her skin-tight dresses and bikinis. Her last lines are, and I’m not making this up, “I’m famished.”

I could denigrate the movie for days. The plot is thin. Fassbinder plays a lawyer in Texas who decides to buy into a drug deal. The deal goes wrong. And the hammer falls. On everyone. Brad Pitt gets his head cut off. There, I just saved you two hours.

2.

Anonymous is a horrid film too, and predictably so. The movie begins with the premise that Edward de Vere secretly wrote all the plays of Shakespeare—the movie posits that he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a child of twelve!—but couldn’t tell the world because, well, it involves Queen Elizabeth not having an heir. Among other intrigues.

I don’t have to defend Shakespeare, there are dozens of better-equipped people than me doing so, but the movie with this kind of ridiculous conceit should be fun. Loads of fun. Oodles and oodles of guilty pleasure kind of fun.

It isn’t. The scenes are muddled. The acting is, on the whole, horrible. Which feels ironic somehow—actors playing actors playing characters, something in there should be watchable—but it isn’t really played for anything. The whole movie operates as an argument against Shakespeare (they make him a drunken fool, a craven knave, and a coward to boot) being a writer, and for de Vere being well, the world’s greatest human. Suffering for his art.

Um, no. And this movie stinks.

Um, no. And this movie stinks.

Ben Jonson is in it. So are Thomas Dekker and Christopher Marlowe. But unlike Shakespeare in Love —which is fabulous and witty, playing with the historical figures while sneaking in anachronistic wordplay—this movie has them in the film to be beaten, knifed, chased, and then deliver the occasional pithy line. It’s the rare movie I didn’t finish and didn’t want or need to.

In the final tally, the movie exists as a (falsified) jumping off point for snobs who believe Shakespeare couldn’t be the actual author of the plays because he wasn’t rich. If middle-brow, faux snobbery is your thing, go forth and enjoy.

Rubbish.

3.

Her is two films, one of them fantastic, one of them wretched. It all depends on what baggage you bring to it.

The movie isn’t complex; the story is the plot is the movie. A lonely, damaged man falls in love with a disembodied artificial intelligence. Joaquin Phoenix plays the man, and it is a fascinating performance, humbled, wounded, and bare, a fascinating counterpoint to his superb turn in The Master. (See here) Similarly raw, but decent and kind and introverted. Scarlet Johansen plays the artificial intelligence, and she conveys a vast range of emotions through her voice. It, too, is a marvel.

The movie has a fantastic look, vaguely futuristic, with a sharp costume design. And to lovers of twee aesthetics and minimalist mid-century furniture, the movie is a wonder.

Critics loved it. Most responded to its whimsical tone, its beauty, it’s patient storytelling. Her has been compared to 2001, which is both absurd and somehow just right.

Good performances. Check. Good visuals. Check. Intriguing premise. Check. Great music. Check. What isn’t to like?

 

A movie full of astonishing beauty, yet flat and unsatisfying.

A movie full of astonishing beauty, yet flat and unsatisfying.

Oodles. The movie is thin, mealy-mouthed, overly optimistic, confined by its absurd premise, philosophical in a sophomore in college sort of way, and kind of, well, offensive. There’s no real action, and very little conflict, so the movie trusses up the proceedings with beautiful exteriors. People walking. The movie reduces human experience to sex and love, and to me seemed a champion of mediocrity. (Phoenix’s job is writing love notes for other people. The other characters repeatedly comment on his writing talents.) There’s something artificial and stuffy about the movie’s ending.

A generous reviewer would call it touching and gentle. A tougher viewer would see it as torpid and slow. Hopeful humanism or spineless psycho-babble?

During the movie, I leant to the former. I gave Jones the benefit of the doubt. But as the movie trudged on, with no real twists or electricity, I grew weary. And with fifteen minutes to go, Beth brought it into stark relief, saying, “This is the worst, most self-indulgent movie I’ve ever seen. I would rather watch The Wolf of Wall Street again.”

Then, “Last year was a terrible year for movies.”

I can’t disagree. Feeling torn over this one, for sure, but I don’t ever want to watch it again.

4.

Steven Soderbergh is an immeasurably talented director with an immense bag of tricks. But his emphasis on lighting, angles, lenses, and so on has left him with an uneven career; for all his cinematographic wizardry, he often loses the story in his movies. Thus, he’s made some very fine films, including Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich (I know, some people hate it) and the two-part Che. But he also made the remake of Solaris[2], the absolute stinker The Informant!, plus the oddly lifeless movies The Good German, The Girlfriend Experience and Behind the Candelabra. He has great films in him, but he hasn’t really made many. But even his bad movies have little moments of electricity, bright spots of spontaneity or life. Which always leaves me hoping he’ll fulfill on his early promise.

Magic Mike might be his best movie, a summation of his strongest qualities, a fascinating film that is equal parts Boogie Nights and Dazed and Confused. The lighting is astonishing, bathing all the actors in alternating bronze gauzy sunlight and fuzzy, tawdry halogen. The script is meandering, pleasant, funny. Matthew McConaughey delivers another superior performance, rounding out his great turns in Mud and True Detective, and the rest of the cast is great, too.

 

Loads of beefcake, yes, but also a great movie with subtle performances.

Loads of beefcake, yes, but also a great movie with subtle performances.

The film follows a group of male strippers in Tampa, focusing on Channing Tatum, who plays an ambitious furniture maker who can’t get a leg up. He has cash, he has talent, he has sex appeal, he’s smart and capable, but he can’t quite put a life together. He’s hemmed in by the expectations of others and the often, unseen barriers in our society. He’s drifting, only he doesn’t realize it. McConaughey plays the charming but unscrupulous club owner, who plays the father-figure to his band of dancers but only so far as they benefit him. He’s a smiling rake, with plenty of panache, but at a crucial moment in the movie he lets Tatum see beneath the façade, and it’s a dark, brutal place indeed.

 

The movie straddles the fence between bump and grind fun times and the darker, druggier aspects of the nocturnal life. It ends with a simple, elegant maxim: pursuing pleasure isn’t bad, it’s just unsustainable.

A very good film, soured only a touch by a late little spurt of moralizing. One I’d watch again.

5.

But the best movie I’ve seen recently—including Jersey Boys (I liked it), Trumbo (inexplicably moving), Klown (hysterical), Upstream Color (hard to forget), Star Trek Into Darkness (boo), World War Z (better than I expected), Il Futuro (quite good, if difficult to describe), Simon Killer (sexy and disturbing), Three Outlaw Samurai (yes, pretty good), Friends with Money (excellent and diamond-hard), The Horseman (engaging but thin), Prisoners (smashing), and the television mini-series Top of the Lake (fantastic), all of which seems random, when I look at it, and more American-centric than my usual habits—was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Wintry, chilling, beautiful, haunting, challenging, bleak, thrilling—this noirish western follows the last days of Jesse James (played to the hilt by Brad Pitt) as he stalks his former gang, sliding ever deeper in paranoia and depression. Pitt plays James as a murderous, untrusting bully, unsure of his way in a changing world. In his bank-robber perambulations, James comes across Bob Ford (played by Casey Affleck), an amoral kid who has adored James since he can remember. Ford’s older brother, Charlie (played by Sam Rockwell), falls under James’s sway, too. Jeremy Renner and Garrett Dillahunt play low-rent outlaws, and Paul Schneider delivers a bravura performance as a lusty, high-falutin’ cut-throat. Rounding out the cast is Sam Shepard, who plays Frank James as a terse, all-business gunfighter.

 

An astonishing film.

An astonishing film that will haunt you, if you can sit through it.

The various characters pursue, flee, lie in wait for each other; Jesse James is an information system, too, closed off and insular, off-kilter, astral. As the film progresses, Bob Ford turning colder, meaner, steelier, while James grows increasingly paranoid and erratic. And yet, in a very moving performance, Affleck’s Ford simultaneously becomes more anxious, vulnerable and exposed. He wants to kill James, but he isn’t sure why. For prosperity? For money? To save his own life? He can’t decide if James is his hero, his friend, or his enemy, and the movie sustains a vicious tension for much of its running time. James suspects Ford wants to kill him. Or does he? It’s an astonishing display of terse unease for the better part of an hour.

The scenery is breathtaking, each shot is framed with a painterly beauty, and the script is excellent. The movie would have been a fine western, but it has a peculiar third act, following Bob Ford as an actor, re-enacting his murder of Jesse James for huge crowds. Charlie plays James on the stage, and the haunting, elegiac tone of this last little bit pushes the movie into weirder, richer territory. Past the edges of the genre. Past the expectations of the viewer. Into something stony and vivid, like stepping into a cave painting.

Some critics argued that the movie was a cautionary tale about fame. This is an absurd interpretation. The movie is about real people, living wild, violent lives, and the surreal horror of inhabiting the memories of your own life, like a ghost draping over your own skin.

One for the ages.

 

[1] Whom I love and admire.

[2] Just really, really bad.

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