Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2007)


In revising the cult-friendly allure of Jesse James and his death through existential malaise, ruthless skull-obliterating and a moody-muddy palette, Andrew Dominik is openly riffing on the likes of Terrence Malick, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman. On the one hand, this is commendable, but on the other hand, if he wasn't calling on such forbidding connotations, his own film could much more comfortably be categorised as a success. This way its shortcomings are all the more conspicuous: the unproductive book-on-tape voiceover; the polite, generic score; the role of women restricted to voiceless housewifery; the conspicuous abundance of rippling wheat fields; the turgid, squinting wisdom-dispensing. The movie is as infatuated with itself as it is with Jesse James and Robert Ford.

As Jesse James Brad Pitt hogs most of the monologues and top billing, but it's Casey Affleck as Bob Ford who delivers the depth, gives the movie oxygen and some murky, arresting humanity. Effacing any trace of ego, he's as subtle and natural when his voice shivers as the star-struck teenager, when it catches as the put-upon youngest brother and when it rips as the charred national pariah. A thing of unassuming beauty, his performance counterpoints the movie's mannered lyricism and pushes it onto a human plane.

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The Naked Spur (Anthony Mann, 1953)


The third in the series of taut, hardboiled Westerns Anthony Mann made together with James Stewart. Jimmy plays a dejected bountyhunter forced to trust a couple of patently untrustworthy people to help him transport a wanted criminal across the Colorado Rockies (the real ones - no back projection).

Like a lot of the Mann-Stewart collaborations, this one's notable for eschewing heroics or even a single figure of irreproachable decency, for a blistering lead performance, as well as for a screenplay without an ounce of fat.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Quai des Orfèvres (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1947)

An early Henri-Georges Clouzot thriller, it isn't piercing like his best work, but it's bizarrely warm and enjoyable. A bickering music hall couple, their icy lesbian neighbour, a seasoned detective and a sticky murder get tangled in the convoluted plot. Clouzot injects it with verve and atmosphere.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

An Old Mistress (Catherine Breillat, 2007)


When you consider Catherine Breillat's preferred mode of archness and formalism, the period melodrama seems like not only a natural arena but almost an extension of her personality. Though it's less confrontational and explicit than in her previous films, her fascination with transgression and sexuality is no less trenchant when framed against a society built on outwardly strict and rigorous codes and conventions. Her observations lose none of their relevance or pointed precision for being fluffed up in starched collars and ballgowns. But they do gain a depth and resonance for being defined against a field of absorbing, volatile and complex emotions.
Fu'ad Ait Aattou plays a notorious libertine reflecting on his ten-year affair with tempestuous kept-woman Asia Argento on the eve of his commitment to a pretty, accommodating young lady with a title. Argento lacks the maturity the role demands but has the brazenness to compensate. Aattou is equipped with enormous, highly photogenic lips to distract from his vacant, vacant eyes. Claude Sarraute and Yolande Moreau are both delightful as veteran socialites.

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