Monday, October 22, 2007

Early Oscar™-bait Roundup

Into the Wild (2007, Sean Penn)- it's illustrative to see this movie the same weekend as The Darjeeling Limited, as the two movies so clearly illuminate the differences between spiritual tourists and honest-to-goodness seekers. Anderson's heroes see India as a kind of quick fix for their troubled souls, making a whirlwind tour of the most "spiritual" stops situated along the route of their train before ending up confronting the mother who ran out on them, all in an attempt to confront their troubles. But Into the Wild realizes that it's not as simple as that. Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) had his share of demons to be sure, but then so did his sister, and she didn't take to the road. The film shows us that while some people turn their backs on the past and make a new life outside the mainstream, it's got just as much to do with their psychological wiring as it does with the circumstances they seek to escape. But even more importantly, it also says that the seeker's tendency- be it wanderlust or spiritual unrest- is something that can never quite be quenched. I'm not sure about some of Penn's aesthetic choices here- the onscreen text, the occasional chronological jumbling- but there's no denying that this is his most assured film as a director, due in no small part to his kinship with McCandless, being something of a seeker himself. Rating: 7 out of 10.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007, Andrew Dominik)- first, the obvious: this movie is completely bleedin' gorgeous. The only movie I've seen recently that can rival this for sheer visual pleasure is Silent Light- it's that beautiful. But it would all just be eye candy if not for the compelling story at its center. Many critics have remarked about the way James' mystique presages our modern-day celebrity culture. But this wouldn't work half so well if Jesse himself wasn't so aware of it. Even in the eyes of his own men James is a towering figure, which goes a long way to explain his power over them- they drop everything to do his bidding, and when he comes around they're justifiably nervous. Jesse is completely mindful of his legend, which made his untimely end sort of inevitable, not least in his own eyes. Being the notorious Jesse James, the only death that would have made sense would have come from the barrel of a gun, and as the idea starts to consume his thinking, he figures why not just offer the chance to someone who's aching to do it? As such, the film becomes a dance of death in its second half, involving the increasingly paranoid and death-minded James and Bob Ford, whose obsessive man-crush (less sexual fixation than childish hero worship) has become bitter and resentful. But for me, the movie really cements its awesomeness in the final reel, following James' death, when it examines the fallout of the killing in the lives of Ford and others. The celebrity that Ford was afforded for a short time after the killing soon gave way to a lonely existence, as James' mystique only grew from being gunned down before his time. Suddenly a cold-blooded killer became a legend of the lawless west, and the man who effectively ended his killing spree was an unloved coward. Shooting Jesse James in the back was simultaneously the best and worst thing that Robert Ford could have done for himself, with his story culminating in one of the most lonely and senseless deaths I've seen onscreen in a long time. I hope to see this again in the near future, and urge all of you (especially you Muriel Awards voters looking for a prospective winner in the Best Cinematography category) to do the same. Rating: 8 out of 10.

Lust, Caution (2007, Ang Lee)- maybe it's just that I was so bowled over by Black Book earlier this year (scroll down to May for review), but while I respected Lee's Occupation drama, it didn't really do much for me. For the most part, Lee's style feels very middle-of-the-road: the visuals are handsome but not lush, the period feel is convincing but never immersive, the story is involving but rarely compelling. Like much of Lee's oeuvre, it's about repressed desire, which this time finds an outlet in the much-ballyhooed NC-17 sex scenes (acrobatic but rarely erotic). But given the relatively tepid approach Lee takes to the majority of the film- sex scenes and protracted stabbing scene aside- I longed to see what a more expressionistic filmmaker like Wong Kar-wai, or a more poetic one like Hou Hsiao-hsien, might have made of this story. Another problem is that despite being more than 2 1/2 hours long, it very much feels like an expanded short story, with a somewhat bloated narrative through-line and some vagueness around the edges. What, for example, were we to make of Yee's wife, played by Joan Chen? We mostly see her playing mahjongg or going shopping, but what is her relationship with her husband (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) like? The film doesn't seem to know, and Chen projects almost no inner life for the character. Clearly the resistance fighters would see her largely as an obstacle to getting to her husband, but there's got to be more to her than that. Also, Tang Wen is pretty and more than willing to get naked, but I wasn't all that taken with her as an actress. She seemed too opaque to successfully sell the role- not opaque in the repressing-her-feelings-for-the-cause way needed for the character, but more in the not-particularly-expressive way. Nice nipples though. Rating: 5 out of 10.


James said...

I loved the casting here; a huge celebrity playing a huge celebrity, and doing it powerfully by acting like a mere mortal, albeit a large-than-life one.

That was pretty convoluted, but I think you get the point.

Do you think that the Jesse James of this film enjoyed his fame? To me, he seemed like he wanted to dislike it, but couldn't. Why else keep around Robert Ford, this dorky kid that doesn't seem overly capable of doing much of anything?

I wish they had traded the scene where Dick Liddel and Jesse's cousin visit the old man and his trophy wife for more epilogue. I would have liked to have seen more about Ford's decline, which was so fitting considering his foolish ambition.

Paul C. said...

I think he enjoyed his fame as much as he could, when he got the chance. Naturally, he couldn't trade on his fame most places he went, which is doubtlessly why he enjoyed the company of his men, who clearly looked up to him even though they feared him.

Frankly, it was this combination of hero worship and intimidation that kept the men together and in line, as evidenced by the mess they all become when he's not around. That's where I think the stuff with Wood and Dick comes in- there's a whole lot of suspicion and sneaking around going on behind Jesse's back, and given the clashing personalities of these two men, it was inevitable that something like this would be the beginning of the end. If it wasn't Dick sleeping with Wood's dad's bride, it would have been something else.

This subplot might not have the lyricism that distinguishes the rest of the movie, but when you've got a fairly uncommercial revisionist Western that's more than 2 1/2 hours long, something has to propel the plot forward once in a while. This had the added bonus of showing us Robert's dangerous side.

But I would agree with you about the epilogue- I could have watched another half hour of that, easy. I would imagine that the longer cuts of the film probably had more scenes taking place after Jesse died.

James said...

I didn't think much about how Robert's killing of Wood demonstrated that he was capable of pulling the trigger, but you're right. Still, I think they could have trimmed a few minutes of fat from that subplot.

I was amazed at how well the film (Brad Pitt's performance, especially) was able to generate much suspense, even though my quick research already told me who would live and die. Although James as depicted in this film wasn't especially likely to draw his pistols and fire at the drop of a hat, the Fords and everyone else couldn't be sure of that, and walked on egg shells, accordingly.