J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for August, 2009

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Posted by J on August 20, 2009

Don’t be fooled by the title. This movie sounds as if it’s going to model one of those wild and cool dime novels of the late 5463919th century.  You know the ones with elaborate treasure hunts, train robberies, and escapes — the kind of thing Tom Sawyer suckered Huck Finn into at the end of Huckleberry Finn.

No, none of that.  Instead, this is a meandering, weenie psychodrama of a movie.  Which is a heckuva feat, because any Jesse James story ought to be far from meandering.

But first, we’ll give some due credit to the movie for the sake of our film-loving friends.  This movie is nicely shot — good cinematography and lighting — and they get the sets and costumes perfect for the period.  And then there’s the language, which is marvelous.  You don’t hear too many people calling the outhouse “the privy” these days, nor a playboy an “inamorato.”   Lots of good 19th century jargon in this one, so watch it with the subtitles.

Unfortunately the movie focuses far too closely on its two main guys, James and Robert Ford.  James’ character, played by Brad Pitt, is never consistent.  He seems to change personalities every ten minutes — gregarious, gloomy, playful, sadistic, all of these and more.  Pitt didn’t even follow the movie’s opening description of James, who, we are told, had a physical condition that made him constantly blink his eyes. Pitt instead plays James like a movie star would, with eyelids glued open.

Ford, on the other hand, is well acted by modern standards.  A young pup with a James’ obsession, because he’s read the zany dime novels about James, Ford has self-esteem issues related to being the lowest member in the James’ gang’s hierarchy.  Still, Ford doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’d boldly rob trains and kill someone if need be.   He has more in common with a brooding Gen. X, Ethan Hawke character, which means he ‘s pretty much a weenie throughout.

Both James and Ford here seem to have a celebrity/fan relationship, as well as a mafioso/underling one.  Ford is obsessed with James’ famous name, so much so that the movie suggests he killed James in order to become a celebrity like James.  More bizarrely, the movie’s ending suggests that James groomed Ford into killing him.  For no good reason, James wants to be killed by Ford, as if to win some kind of psychological wrestling match.  There’s no way the real James would even do such a thing.  Only a therapeutic culture doped up on psychotropic meds could dream up something this weird.

Yeah, the movie is really slow.  It’s got an Andrei Tarkovsky-like pace, only with the bad habits of Terrance Malick.  It makes us ponder the looks on people’s faces for what seems like forever.  In one extended scene, we have to dwell on the petty infidelity of a young wife and a member of the James’ gang, which is totally pointless.

This is a travesty to the historical accounts of James, which are quite exciting.  If you don’t believe us read the Wikipedia article on him.    Even stranger is that James and post-Civil War Missouri are morally and politically complex subjects.  That’s just the kind of subject Hollywood loves to explore, but for some reason we get none of that here.  James and his gang had political motivations for their deeds, as well as personal ones, since James’ own house was firebombed.  The movie relates none of this, except to show that the governor of Missouri (played by James Carville) is out to get James.

Probably this all means skip the movie, save yourself three hours of your life, and stick to reading about James if you’re at all interested.

Entertainment: 4

Intelligence: 6

Morality: 3 (yes, the movie shows us that we are all sinful — well duh!)


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The Right Stuff

Posted by J on August 5, 2009

So after reading Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, we were curious about its right-stuff-DVDcovercinematic depiction.  We’ve read the book too recently to make this judgment, but Wolfe’s book might be in our top-15.  That’s top 15 books we’ve ever read, which includes many books written before 1900, FYI.

Anyway, as is typical of white people like us, the movie just doesn’t compare, and that darn sure makes us upset.

The Right Stuff movie is simply a collection of the best scenes from the book, all strung together without an obvious point.  For example, we get the scene where Alan Shepherd, preparing to become the first American in space, has to urinate while sitting in his capsule waiting for launch.  Should he go, or not?  Wolfe has dozens of funny, unexpected moments of the early American space program, tied together with two or three key themes.  The movie tries but ultimately fails in communicating those themes.

One of them is the pilot hierarchy, the ziggurat that all pilots attempt to ascend, in order to become the best.  Those at the top of the ziggurat have “the right stuff,” which Wolfe cleverly rephrases several times as “the righteous stuff.”  Basically, in the early ’60s, the astronauts-turned-pilots were a modern version of an ancient warrior-class, and they were treated as such by American citizens and their media.

Wolfe contrasts one part of the pilot hierarchy, the rocket plane pilots, which included Chuck Yeager, with the Mercury astronauts.  Wolfe’s implicit point is that the rocket pilots were really the ones who deserved the glory that the astronauts received.  After all, the rocket pilots were breaking air speed records regularly, flying into space, and actually controlling the crafts they were flying in.  By contrast, the Mercury astronauts were doing the same things that NASA-trained chimpanzees were trained to do: push a bunch of buttons, sit on a rocket, and don’t panic.  The Mercury astronauts weren’t really piloting anything, even though they really wanted to be.

The movie attempts this contrast, especially with Yeager’s character, but the whole point of the difference between the two sets of pilots is lost because there is no narrator to explain it.  We are left to infer the pilot group differences from the images, but a lot of explanation was apparently left out in the editing room.  So Yeager in this movie becomes just another brave American hero; he’s almost kind of a throw-in here, and so it would’ve made sense to leave him out.  Whereas the book ends with the bravest exploit of all — Yeager’s last flight, in which he had to eject and nearly had his finger and face burnt off — the movie ends with a minor Mercury astronaut flying into space right after Yeager’s insane flight.

What then is this movie’s thesis?  It is difficult to tell.  Maybe it’s that the early astronauts were ordinary guys with ordinary gals as wives, all caught up in a world-historical event.  But that’s a maybe.  It’s really hard to tell.

There’s more we could say, but let’s forego that and end with a simple, constant piece of advice: don’t watch the movie, and instead read the book.  The book is far better than the movie.

Entertainment: 6

Intelligence: 4

Morality: 5

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