I saw a couple of films yesterday in a series of what is quickly becoming a season of movie greatness: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Across The Universe. Both films are stunning, lush films that go along at leisurely paces, but in this case, that’s a very good thing.
First up, Jesse James.
I have to say, while I’ve always respected Brad Pitt’s choices in films (seriously, has he ever done anything bad? Well, okay, The Mexican was pretty bad), Jesse James is one of his finest works yet. Pitt plays James as an anti-hero with a menacing quality only hinted at in previous roles Pitt has done. His work is so good that it would be a shame to see him lose out on an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in several months time.
The real find of this film is Casey Affleck, who gives the performance of his career as the doomed Robert Ford. Ford is kind of pathetic from the get-go as a wannabe gunslinger, a star-struck kid unable to get past the mythology of Jesse James. Ford begins to descend into a pit of despair and anguish as he sees James for what he really is: a violent, manipulative killer with very human qualities of arrogance and paranoia.
The best part of Jesse James, however, is the cinematography – this is one of the best shot films I’ve seen in a long time. I love westerns with a passion, but Jesse James is so well-shot, so lovingly embracing of sunsets, horizons and vistas, it almost demands a second viewing to take it all in again.
On a deeper level, Jesse James is a very modern parable about the toxic celebrity culture we live in today. The pattern is alarmingly familiar to anyone bearing witness to the freak show of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton and other attention-seeking folk: the myth of a celebrity is both seductive and horribly destructive. James is haunted by his celebrity across the world and the toll it has taken on his life, and Ford’s expectations of James are shrouded in comic books and legends. In the end, it destroys them both.
This is a terrific movie – go see it, it’s one of the year’s best works.
Across The Universe, while not a western, is just as epic in scope and compelling in character as Jesse James.
Directed by Ken Russell-heiress Julie Taymor (Titus, Frida), this is a very trippy, 60’s era music set to Beatles’ music from 1963 to 1969.
There’s a lot to like about this musical. Unlike Hairspray, which, while fun and deliberately gaudy, Across the Universe is willing to dive right into some heavy stuff (the Vietnam War, Detroit Race Riots, drugs, political assassinations, student protests) during America’s most turbulent decade (until now, I might add) with aplomb. The Beatles tracks have been effectively re-worked and sound great – particularly the rock-out versions of Helter Skelter and Revolution. Not so good is Bono (with a peculiar American accent, no less) singing I Am The Walrus. This is the only cringe-inducing moment in the whole film. Bono redeems himself with Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, but Walrus isn’t his shining moment.
The whole film feels distinctly of another era – it has the 70s surrealism of Russell’s Tommy and guest-stars coming out of the woodwork (Joe Cocker and Eddie Izzard are both welcome additions). There’s some crazy visuals in the whole exercise of Taymor-esque proportions (the induction center U.S. military guys are a real trip) that go a bit too far here and there, however.
But the real stars are Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturgess, star-crossed lovers who really nail their songs and characters well. Wood in particular, who normally seems like the ultimate femme fatale, is great in a much more vulnerable role for her than usual.
All in all, these two films are definitely worth the money. It’s turning out to be a great fall for movies.