The Rear-View Mirror: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

“Do you want to be like me? Or do you want to be me?”

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Jesse James, as played by Brad Pitt, is a canny creature. He observes the nervous, deferential Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) and sees a fanboy, though one whose adoration and longing could easily turn into something else, something darker. If you can’t be your hero, what can you do? You can depose him. You can kill him. Continue reading

It’s the pictures that got small

This week I saw my first Hitchcock on the big screen. I grew up in the ’80s, which meant that I first and, more often than not, only saw the classics of cinema on TV – and in the ’80s that meant, what, screens that were 30 inches across if you were lucky? TVs were big, bulky monstrosities, but the screens weren’t particularly big – which was good, really, because television channels broadcast images that were relatively fuzzy. If you sat close enough to the screen so that it filled your field of vision (and you could smell that weird electric smell), what you saw was basically impressionist art.

North By Northwest

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SoCal, baby! (Shoot me now…)

In case you were wondering: I haven’t abandoned you or the internet or my “way too late to be of any relevance whatsoever” blog. I’ve just been away, and still am. For the first time in my life, I’m not just witnessing the sheer bigness (biggitude?) of the United States of Thingamy through the TV screen – I’m in San Diego, enjoying the sun, the zoo, the predominantly Democrat people, the 24-hour shop at the gas station that sells juices made up of broccoli, spinach and garlic that nevertheless taste pretty damn good.

I’ve also made it to the fabled American movie theatre, and the first and most important thing to report is this: they show about 2 1/2 times as many trailers as they do back home! (That’s it, I’m moving here…) Okay, the number of trailers may not quite make up for the film that followed them in this instance…

As I may or may not have mentioned earlier, I’m not a Western fan as such… but some films and series that I like a lot happen to be Westerns. I like what you can do with a well established genre – such as showing up the genre’s limitations and giving alternate readings of its archetypes. I love Deadwood and The Assassination of is anyone still reading this title or have you already jumped to the end of the italics? is one of my favourite films of the last couple of years.

Appaloosa, Ed Harris’ second film as a director, could have been made 60 years ago, with little changes. It’s old fashioned. That in itself isn’t bad. What is a shame is that the film becomes way too comfortable with itself, to the point where, even when bad things happen, there is no urgency to the story at all. There’s too much there that is utterly predictable. And most of the characters have the emotional maturity of sitcom characters.

As a result, I sat there thinking, “Nice acting, but I don’t really care.” I didn’t care whether Harris’ character and Renée Zellweger’s golddigger would end up with each other and be happy. I didn’t much care whether any of the protagonists would die before the end. The few bits that made me look up with interest – the quasi-domestic relationship between Harris and Mortensen before it’s broken up by, gosh darn!, a woman is quite nice, and the film’s nicely aware of Harris’ character being rather thick at the best of times – were nice enough, but the overriding thought on my mind as I left the cinema was: “I wonder how many episodes of Deadwood season 4 this could have financed…”

On a slightly different note: Watched the premiere of the US Life on Mars. Was left with a deeply felt confusion as to why to do this remake and a mixture of pity for Harvey Keitel (he looked like he wanted to be somewhere else) and annoyance with him (if he doesn’t want to be there, why is he taking up the space?). I have no problem with remakes on principle – but if they’re as pointless, and joyless, as this one I have to wonder: “How many episodes of Deadwood…?”

The Grim Brothers Coen

There are many things in No Country for Old Men that recall the Coens’ earlier films, specifically Blood Simple and Fargo; yet it feels notably different in many ways from those films. Intolerable Cruelty (and, from what I hear, Ladykillers) also felt unlike the earlier movies the brothers had made – in some ways, they felt more like someone was trying to imitate their style and succeeded in isolated scenes but, on the whole, failed… Failed, that is, to make a good Coen movie as well as a good film in general.

No Country for Old Men is a good movie. It may even be the best Coen film to date. Chances are I’ll never love it as much as Fargo, but that’s also for nostalgic reasons. Fargo is by no means anything less than a fantastic film, but it doesn’t have the sheer compactness and focus of No Country for Old Men.

And it doesn’t have Anton Chigurh.

Chigurh, as played by Javier Bardem, is one of the scariest movie characters in a long time. I’ve never read any Cormac McCarthy novels, and for all I know he was already frightening in the book, but what Bardem and the Coens make of him is chilling.

However, the film has plenty more going for it than Bardem’s psychotic Prince Valiant and his pneumatic slaughterhouse device. It works so well because the three main characters – Chigurh, Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) and Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) – complement each other so well. The story and the protagonists are balanced to perfection; you’ll rarely see a film that is as intricately structured. Bell and Chigurh are like two poles, balanced on the axle that is Moss: not a bad guy, but deeply flawed and too sure of himself, even after he’s seen the force of nature that is the killer following him. Moss commits several stupid acts in the film, as well as some brilliant on-his-feet thinking, but his greatest stupidity lies in thinking that he has a chance against his opponent. Bell, on the other hand, seems to understand (and accept, in the very end) that there is some evil that is beyond comprehension and that cannot be tricked or beaten.

No Country for Old Men

If you’re like me, and an Academy Award is more likely to put you off a film, do yourself a favour. If you enjoy great acting and don’t mind bleakness that makes Sweeney Todd look like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (okay, that’s not quite fair – like Edward Scissorhands, perhaps), do go and see this film. And see it at a cinema rather than on TV. Roger Deakins’ work, which once again is quite magnificent, deserves the big screen. I just say The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and, once again, Fargo.