Thursday, September 27, 2007

Fantoche

This is one of the most incredible, trippy, impressive pieces of animation I've ever seen. It makes Jan ҆vankmajer look like The Cheat. Forget the Human Flipbook. Watch this clip immediately, particularly if you have just ingested an eighth of an ounce or more of psilocybin-packed mushrooms.



[Hat Tip, Sullivan]

I'm No Hillary Fan But...

she's smart. You've got to give her that. Maybe she's not quite as fast a talker as Bill, but who are we kidding here? No one is. That guy's the white male Scheherazade.

After 7 years of listening to the tortured syntactical nightmares of Preznit Stumblefuck, hearing a politician actually speak in a manner that's lucid and sensible now has the ability to shock and delight. She actually sounds kind of convincing here. I'm not fooled, mind you. Being old enough to remember the Clinton years means knowing that, behind the nice speeches, pop culture knowledge and comforting hand gestures, they're basically just sane Republicans. (A rare commodity in the actual Republican Party, but still plentiful in the Democratic.)

I didn't watch the whole debate...I've been catching up with it on YouTube. Here's about a seven minute segment of Clinton kicking everyone else on the dais' ass.



They're all going after her, directly, yet it's Biden who comes off looking like the pasty, hopeless chump. Dodd seems to think people are voting for College Comic of the Year, Southwest Region, not President. I'm all for lightening the mood a bit, but it's important to actually make some kind of point between the Bush zingers.

Seriously, she's gonna win, people. She's not my personal choice out of this crop, but she's going to smoke all these other fools. I'll take bets right now on Clinton v. Giuliani down the stretch.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford

We don't often think of murderers and criminals as being assassinated. Usually, they are killed, or taken out, or even executed. In fact, aside from Jesse James, the only other criminal I can recall being "assassinated" is Lee Harvey Oswald. It's a weighted term reserved for the legendary or notorious, and James was both.

James' killer, Robert Ford, sought exactly this kind of noteriety all his life, only to find it constantly unattainable. Andrew Dominik's masterful, anti-epic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford opens with the future assassin presenting himself to Jesse (Brad Pitt) and his similarly famous brother Frank (Sam Shepard) as an eager young apprentice, hoping to learn about the outlaw life at the feet of two masters. He's stung when rejected, probably because it brings to mind all the taunts and torments passed down to him by his older brother Charley (Sam Rockwell), a member of the James Gang. Ford claimed to have killed James out of fear for his life, and in the hopes of receiving a $10,000 reward from the Governor, but Dominik's film seems to suggest that it all comes back to this initial meeting. Ford had idolized James, had seen himself following in the James legacy, and no devastation could be more complete than to be mocked and humiliated by his idol.

Of course, this is just one theory. Dominik's film wisely remains ambiguous to the end, quiet and reserved, observing these men as they navigate increasingly complex and uncertain relationships from a distance. Apart from some occasional voice-over narration (most of it likely taken from Ron Hansen's novel on which the film is based), events unfold with a keenly natural grace.

As in David Fincher's similarly-impressive Zodiac from earlier this year, there's a precision and exactness to Dominik's film; he recreates these events with an acute sense of mounting dread, allowing incidents to collect into a narrative at their own lifelike pace. We don't so much hurry from once event to the next as we connect inevitable dots. These individuals - the increasingly-paranoid James, the emotionally brittle Ford, the flippant womanizer Dick Liddel (Paul Schneider), and the remainder of James' crew - are on a collision course. We know they will find their way to one another eventually, and Dominik gives us the space to really wonder how, and what the aftermath of these encounters will be like. This is clearly one of the smartest and most satisfying films of 2007, an ingenious exploration of the weight of infamy and the despair that naturally follows overzealous ambition. It's not to be missed.



Brad Pitt's performance as James melds two of his most disparate characters. We have the unpredictable frenzy of Tyler Durden married to the enigmatic, occasionally baffling Joe Black in a single persona. By virtue of his fierce intelligence and the legends that have sprouted up around him, Pitt's James has clearly grown used to being the center of attention and the smartest man in the room. So accustomed is he to manipulating and controlling all those around him, these ploys have become a kind of second nature, until, by his own admission, he can hardly recognize himself or know his true feelings.

We encounter James as he and his brother Frank are pulling their last job together, robbing a train with the aid of a newly-assembled gang. (Their initial band of outlaws are all deceased or in prison). The robbery is unsatisfying; they don't collect all that they hoped for, and Jesse kills a man in anger and frustration. The brothers part ways, and Jesse returns to his family, entering a long, tortured descent into paranoid madness.

It's this Jesse to whom Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) attaches himself. Awed by the man's celebrity and impressed by his devil-may-care attitude, Ford at first wants only to ingratiate himself into James' circle, to impress his idol like a boy performing for his father. But as the film progresses, Ford makes some disappointing discoveries - mainly that James is just a man, and a cruel one at that. Dominik, unlike almost any of his directorial peers, demonstrates a great deal of interest in actual performances. He gives his actors space, stretching scenes on for far longer than a typical film, even a period drama, would typically allow. We don't hear about Ford losing his faith in the legendary Jesse James; we see it play out in real time, watching the events of 1881 wear down James' resolve and disabuse Ford of his childhood gunslinging fantasies.

The temptation to overplay James' mounting dread must have been significant, but Pitt shrewdly keeps it all bottled up inside, masking his outbursts and temper tantrums as playful humor or theatrics. Hence the Tyler Durden comparisons. Just as Durden knows he's really the same guy as the Narrator, but allows his alter-ego the time to figure this out, James constantly knows more than he lets on and turns each conversation into a challenge. Right up until the moment of his death (hey, it's not a spoiler if it's in the title!), James is trying to play those around him, to show them one thing while secretly plotting another outcome entirely.

The result is one of the most intense, white-knuckle 3 hour movies imaginable. Assassination of Jesse James takes its time developing, but once it has established the key relationships, the film enters a kind of desperate end game. Dominik (who also wrote the screenplay) composes this verbal gamesmanship expertly. The dialogue is reminiscent of some of Patrice Leconte's films (particularly Ridicule), with each statement secretly betraying a hidden reality behind (or, more accurately, above) the surface.

Even the slower, more elegiac sequences are riveting due to Roger Deakins' gorgeous cinematography. Still photography is a frequent motif in the film; much of the denouement concerns the still photos of James' corpse peddled in dime stores in the years after the film's events. Deakins works this into the visual structure of the film brilliantly, sometimes patterning the style to resemble images shot with an old-fashioned pinhole camera and other times allowing an eerie, photo-like stillness to settle into real life.

At one point, James lays a barricade for an oncoming train and rather dubiously stands atop the structure, willing the train to stop with his bare hands. Shot from behind by Deakins, with the train's lights catching the locomotive steam and surrounding the silhouette of Pitt in the center, we see James as Ford must have: serene, regal, larger than life, almost superpowered. No real man could live up to this kind of glamorized imagery and mythmaking, and James was a very real man.

There's an odd nostalgia in Dominik's film, but it's always unclear for what he's actually nostalgic. His film seems to argue that reality is always subordinate to a well-told yarn, that the tragedy of Robert Ford's life was finally doing something noteworthy and attaining fame only to be haunted by the path that brought him there. Yet the film seems to yearn for a time when mysterious, shadowy, highly fictionalized legends could still walk among us. (Having Nick Cave write the music for the film, and perform a song himself near the conclusion, highlights this theme beautifully. He writes old-fashioned songs about folk tales and grim fantasies, stories about a lost time in America's past that never really existed but which tells us about ourselves all the same).

In the era of YouTube, it takes very little to become well-known, and celebrity can last a few weeks before dissipating. Thousands of people today are as famous as Jesse James once was, so in a way, no one could possibly be that famous ever again. Perhaps this is the real lament at the core of The Assassination of Jesse James - real or not, this sort of shared cultural moment can't be replicated in the era of television and cyberspace. The world's too small and everything's watched too closely. This may be the singular film of 2007. See it in a theater.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Eastern Promises

David Cronenberg's transition from sci-fi and horror films to crime thrillers was both sudden and seamless. With the raw, unforgiving Eastern Promises, the splatterhouse god behind The Fly and Scanners has now entered Scorsese territory with an assured confidence. This isn't as complex a film as Cronenberg's last outing, A History of Violence, which disappointed some audiences by being a more cerebral than visceral take on the nature of bloodletting. Eastern Promises is more of a showcase for actor Viggo Mortensen, who handled the sudden transitions in Violence well but gives the performance of his career this time around as the mysterious gangland enforcer Nikolai Luzhin.

In fact, if I could identify the lone flaw of Eastern Promises, it's that by far the most compelling character isn't actually the protagonist. The rather straight-forward A story follows London midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), whose discovery of a dead mother's diary leads her into the hazardous world of the Russian Mafia (the Vory V Zakone). We get a bit of background on Anna, an explanation for why she's so motivated to find a family for her deceased patient's baby, but there really isn't much to her character, and Watts spends most of the film looking worried and forlorn while more interesting personalities pivot around her. It would be as if Goodfellas focused on Morrie the wig salesman or The Godfather spent all its time with Kay's family.



It's doubtful that any performance or subplot, no matter how intriguing, could have stood alongside Mortensen's here. Nikolai Luzhin is really an ideal film character in that he's a mass of contradictions. He's charismatic, and even friendly, but also a cold-blooded murderer. He's handsome, but covered in fearsome prison tattoos. He's interesting and worldly, but he spends his time babysitting the spoiled, psychotic son (Vincent Cassel) of a cruel and manipulative mob boss (Armin Mueller-Stahl, in the film's other great performance).

What's so amazing about Mortensen in the part is his control. He's doing a big, over-the-top character with a realistic Russian accent, but continually resists the temptation to take over a scene or overstate his presence. He really does very little for the first half hour of the movie, but you're constantly aware of his presence in the scene. He takes up all the oxygen without saying a word. And when Cronenberg finally breaks the tension, in a brutal knife fight no less, it's one of the most audacious and essential sequences in his entire catalog. (I'm a huge fan of Cronenberg's, too, so I don't say that lightly). Film students are going to study this virtuoso scene for decades; it's remarkable.

Like Scorsese's presentation of Daniel Day-Lewis' Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, there is a sense that Eastern Promises exists largely to provide a platform for this one character and a singular director's vision. Little else in Steven Knight's script really stands out from any other garden-variety mob movies. There are a few scenes with Anna, her mother (Sinéad Cusack) and her feisty Russian uncle (Jerzy Skolimowski) that recall History of Violence in their treatment of normal people caught in a grim, violent situation wholly outside of their experience. And as I indicated, Mueller-Stahl does typically great work as the heartless criminal Semyon, who'd sell out just about anyone and anything to protect the family business. (Cronenberg's attention to atmosphere and cultural details, such as setting the bulk of the film's action in a Russian restaurant and filling the soundtrack with Russian songs and dialogue, similarly recalls Scorsese).

Eastern Promises works because that performance and that director are of such a high caliber. Clearly, Cronenberg has seen something in Viggo Mortensen that few other directors have managed to tap, and their collaborations have both been daring and thoughtful in equal measure. The film is worth seeing, really, for that knife fight alone. Everything else is just gravy.