All posts by 39frames

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

2007.  Directed by Andrew Dominik.

Hypnotic, quiet, and dangerous, Andrew Dominik’s masterpiece, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an epic deconstruction of the Western and a bold commentary on America’s celebrity obsession.

Robert Ford is a 19 year old hanger-on to the legendary James Gang.  In the wake of their last heist, he slowly inserts himself into James’s family, beginning an intricate relationship in which both James and Ford recognize the threat in the other man.   As the decidedly non-glamorous violence begins to fray James’s already unhinged mind, Ford seizes the opportunity for glory, not fully understanding the ramifications of his deed until staring into his own, personal oblivion.

Casey Affleck delivers the performance of a lifetime as Ford.  His grasp of the homoerotic undertones and soul crushing evolution of Ford is so exposed that he almost evokes pity for his treachery.  The scene in which James takes his guns off is riveting.  Affleck’s expression is pained orgasmic relief, while Brad Pitt’s Jesse James’s nihilistic embrace is flawless.  Pitt portrays James as a near psychopath, barely held together by his wife and children.  These two actors are muted lightning anytime they are together, playing a dangerous game in which every expression, every gesture has malicious designs.

The supporting cast is a knockout.   Sam Shephard, Jeremy Renner, Mary-Louise Parker, Paul Schneider, Garrett Dillahunt, James Carville, Zooey Deschanel, Ted Levine, and Michael Parks are all solid, each of them outlaws in their own right.  Sam Rockwell as Ford’s brother is gripping in his display of all consuming guilt.

The always mysterious Nick Cave partnered with fellow Bad Seeds member Warren Ellis to create an engrossing, and haunting score that compliments the existential symmetry to near perfection.  Patricia Norris’s costume design is yet another pristine component of Dominick’s charade.   This is a film that is lived in and used up.   The legends of the dying west are real and flawed, hiding their weaknesses behind fancy cravats and sterling watch chains.  Janice Blackie-Goodine’s set decoration is meticulous, faithfully cataloging the world that was for the lost souls that wander throughout.

All of these elements are a distant second to Richard Deakins’s transcendent cinematography.  Using a variety of lighting to create authentic, blurred edges, while simultaneously capturing the natural beauty of the Western Canadian landscape that was used for the film.  The train sequence is a miracle to behold.   Deakins’s esoteric approach to the use of light has to be witnessed in order to fully understand how special his work on this film is.

Dominik’s command of these powerful tools is almost to good to be true.  His script takes its time, examining each theme with endless scrutiny.  The cost of fame is the center of the wheel, while celebrity idolatry, forbidden love, and mental illness are the spokes that move Dominik’s dark epiphany to it’s quiet conclusion.  The narration of Hugh Ross is another elegant nail in the romanticized American West’s coffin.  What begins as a thorough examination of the end of Jesse James unrepentant existence ends as a footnote in an era where popular opinion made devils into legends and cowardice into a matter of intent and opportunity.

Available now for digital streaming, and running at a colossal 160 minutes, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an entrancing addition to the Western genre.  A revisionist epic on the surface, this more of an experience than a film.   It demands patience and thoughtful examination of it’s subject matter, which provides a visually poetic meditation on so-called heroes and those who blindly worship them.

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

-Kyle Jonathan
Advertisements

Resident Evil Film Series

Resident Evil Film Series

2002-2017 . Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, Alexander Witt, & Russell Mulcahy.

Resident-Evil_apocalypse20120218_001
Initially based on the popular video game franchise, the Resident Evil films are equally maligned by critics and revered by loyal fans.  Rather than breaking down each individual film, this review will be about the work as a whole, focusing on the themes of the series.

Filled with endless Looking Glass allegories, on the surface, these stories are about the evolution of Alice, the series’ protagonist.  The manipulation of memory, dreamlike flashbacks, and a repetitive rhythm form the basis of Resident Evil’s mythology.   Alice begins the film as the mirror of a video game persona.  Confused and abandoned in a lush mansion that sits atop a nefarious laboratory, she descends into the madness below, embarking on an odyssey of bullets, blades, and the undead.  The thing is, none of it actually matters because the films purposefully abandon the plot of the game in favor of making a rather provocative statement.

Each entry has a theme.  The first film is focuses relationships and how the same event is remembered differently by the two participants. The second film is explores the military as a business, while the third is an apocalyptic story about the culture of government surveillance.  The fourth is a dissertation on cloning and multiple past lives.  The fifth brings these elements together by forcing the hero to work with the villain in order to save humanity.  The six and final entry is the capstone, a summation Anderson’s iconoclastic vision.

It doesn’t fully click until the fifth film, when the various clues hidden in each film start to come together: There’s a beautifully shot sequence by Glen Macpherson involving an endless procession of clones, all of them various characters from each of the films.   No matter the environment, the women are always scantily clad while the men appear as macho ideas rather than fleshed out characters.  Virtually every film is critically panned but yet manages to make a staggering amount of money.  Finally, there is the idea of the good guys being forced into bed with their corporate foils in order to succeed.

These films are a scathing indictment of Hollywood and a love song to creative freedom.  They’re remarkably presented and equally catty, all while espousing the idea that art, in its various forms is a part of the creator who gives it life.

Recycled characters and plot lines, hordes of zombie like fans, authoritative control on everything we experience down to our visual memories, and on and on and on.  The argument loses some water with reference to the first two films, but in the third, when the series finally finds its stride is where it begins to reveal its true intent.  The final three films, helmed by Anderson drive the point home.  They feature some legitimately beautiful cinematography by Macpherson, pure adrenaline laced fight choreography by Brett Chan, wicked costumes by Wendy Partridge, and a performance by Milla Jovovich that is both committed to the story and loyal to the rebellious underpinnings.

Available now for digital rental, the Resident Evil series of films may not be for everyone, but the sum of its parts is an important examination of the current box office obsession that is dividing fans and critics, crushing independent creativity, and burning virtual bridges across social media.  It took a fellow film lover to point my attention to the artistic level of these films and once I revisited them with this idea in mind, I’m unable to disregard them as D level horror entries.  These (particularly the last four) movies are renegade film making at its finest.  If you’re interested in seeing some outstanding action sequences, gorgeous visuals, and an unapologetic ode to personal creativity, these films will not disappoint.

Highly Recommend.

Tim Burton’s Batman Begins

Batman Returns

1992. Directed by Tim Burton.

A landmark achievement and Burton’s masterpiece. Batman Returns marked the beginning of serious, adult themed superhero films with absolutely zero apologies.  There’s so many pieces at work in this tragic fairy tale that it’s difficult to stay focused. It delves into human despair; highlighting rejection, loss, and the life of a victim after traumatic abuse.

 

Danny Devito and Michelle Pfeiffer deliver the performances of their careers and were both criminally robbed of Oscar nominations. Devito’s Penguin, a menacing troglodyte from the sewers symbolizes the refuse of the American Dream, discarded by his socialite parents for his physical and emotional deformities. He chews up every scene with malicious heartbreak, a son scorned by denial.

Opposite him, is the Catwoman. Pfeiffer’s absolutely brilliant incarnation of Batman’s constant foil is unforgettable.  She forces the viewer to confront the inequalities in the boardroom and in the bedroom. On first glance, it’s easy to dismiss her as a leather clad dominatrix and I believe that is Burton’s intent. It is through this satire that she becomes the epitome of a victim’s rage and it’s simply delicious to watch her spar, both verbally and with claws.

 

Keaton brings the usual anchor as Batman, whose own demons take a backseat to the troubles of the rogue gallery that are an organic response to the costumed vigilante’s presence in Gotham.  Walken fills out the cast as a white-haired mogul, a modern day symbol of the wealth that rejected the Penguin in his youth, thus showing that ultimately, greed is a spirit as real as Gotham itself.

Stefan Czapsky’s cinematography shows a Christmas time Gotham in its death throws, with blacks, white, and grays flooding the visuals. The concept of death is in the very foundation of the city, brought to life with Cheryl Carasik’s breathtaking set pieces. The costumes are a marvel and transcend the superhero mores with a sense of desperation, due to Bob Ringwood and Mary Voight’s creative efforts.

Some could argue this is not really a Batman film, but more a Burton film and thus that is why it is such a masterwork. I contend the opposite. Batman is a story, at its core, about loss, searching for acceptance, and the inevitability of ones actions coming to fore. I think it is for these reasons that Burton chose Batman as the setting for his turbulent Shakespearean tragedy.

You can’t help but marvel at the spectacle, and the stench of Gotham’s sewers will follow you home, long after you’ve left the film behind.

 

Clive Barker’s Nightbreed

Nightbreed (Director’s Cut)

1990.  Directed by Clive Barker.

Clive Barker’s most ambitious film, Nightbreed was hacked to pieces by studio execs prior to release and then by critics after its lackluster debut.  Horrendously marketed as a slasher film, Barker’s misunderstood opus has thankfully gained a cult following over the years, and a recent Director’s Cut release by Scream Factory, allowing Barker’s incoherent monster-centric fable to be viewed in its intended form.

Boone is a drifter who thinks he may be killing people.  His dreams are filled with visions of a city called Midian, a place where monsters dwell.  He sets out in search of the city with his paramour, Lori.  Pursued by the authorities and his murderous therapist, Decker, Boone discovers that Midian is not only real, but that his coming has been foretold by dead gods, prophesying a war between the inhospitable forces of humanity and the savagely noble legions of outcast creatures known as the Nightbreed.

The biggest problem with this film is also its strongest attribute.  Barker throws so many balls into the air that it’s a foregone conclusion that not everything will hit the mark, and yet, Nightbreed comes off as wonderful combination of serial killer fodder, a Gothic fairy tale, and a hauntingly rich form of original mythology.  There are dozens of characters that inhabit Barker’s epic with the monsters eclipsing their human foils, save for David Cronenberg’s sadistic Decker, who is one of the more vital roles in the bloated ensemble.  Oliver Parker as Peloquin is the monstrous standout, with his flesh dreaded faux Rastafarian killer barking the film’s best lines.

 

Mark Coulier’s freakish makeup designs are both elegant and obtuse, as some creatures appear as tangible nightmares and others come across half rendered, in part due to Robin Vidgeon’s stormy cinematography that bounces through lonely cemeteries and ancient catacombs without stopping to catch a breath.  The shame is that many of the creature designs are revealed as horrific intricacies,  whenever the viewer is allowed to glimpse their unspeakable splendor.  Danny Elfman’s amazing score enhances the mythic quality of the story, but it’s offset by the cardboard villainy of the humans and the wholesale familial slaughter that looms in the background throughout the narrative.

A feeling of too little, too fast is the mantra of Nightbreed.  What begins as a menacing serial killer story mutates into a quest for Midian, with Boone’s Christ-like ascension saturating the central act.  There’s also the race war between the monsters and humans and the various social dynamics of the underworld that come into play, but in regrettable portions.  The confusion is when all of these elements collide in an uneven stream of sexually charged violence during the final confrontation.  Despite the inconsistencies, the final battle is an amazing blend of CGI, practical effects, and gritty stunt choreography that is easily Nightbreed’s strongest aspect.

 

Available now on Netflix, or on an excellent blu ray transfer by Scream Factory,  Nightbreed is a unique horror saga that succeeds as much as it fails.  The director’s cut fills in many gaps, but also leaves the viewer wanting more, which while eternally frustrating, is also a testament to Barker’s meticulous world building.  This is a film that drives the viewer down a pot hole ridden dirt road into another world filled with esoteric mysteries and dark wonders, delivering an excellent horror fantasy unlike anything ever attempted in the genre.

Highly Recommend.

 

John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre

el_tesoro_de_sierra_madre

In this week’s Critics’ Corner, Kyle and Ben talk about John Huston’s classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the Warner Brothers classic which screened recently in theaters for its 50th anniversary.

BEN: I was glad I had the opportunity to see this film on the big screen. I loved the characters and their gritty settings, which lent a realism to their down and out status. I loved the fact that Humphrey Bogart wouldn’t let his character get swindled.

KYLE: Paul Thomas Anderson repeated watched this film while he was working on There Will Be Blood.  I think you can see a lot of both Huston’s influence and Bogart’s legendary performance in the DNA of PTA’s masterpiece.

treasure5

BEN: What makes John Huston’s adaptation of B. Traven’s novel is the struggle the characters went through to get to the treasure. The story treats their struggle as an adventure, something we don’t see much of today. But when you look at the amount of treasure they managed to get, the amounts don’t seem like much. That’s probably because we tend to think of gold in bars, not dustings like the film portrays.

KYLE: Agreed, it is the Pyrrhic nature of the story that makes its such an important film.  This is an analysis of not only he debilitating effects of greed and paranoia, but also a fable-esque morality tale on the perils of self-centered apathy.  Dobbs’ entire arc is also intriguing, as he is easily the darkest of the central trio.  It’s difficult to root for him because he’s morally compromised from the jump, however as the final act begins, Bogart’s flawless performance subconsciously builds empathy with the audience.

Treasure_Of_SierraMadre_550x238-detail-main.jpg

BEN: It was obvious that this was Humphrey Bogart’s film. As Dobbs’ he makes such a strong case for why he was a leading man. His look was always the same, but his eyes always sought out adventure, and friendships. Which is why Tim Holt as Curtin was a good match for him. They both carried off their respect for one another as partners, but they didn’t necessarily trust each other. And that’s where I felt Walter Huston as the old prospector, Howard was a good third party. He had been in the hills before, he knew where to find the treasure. And, technically he did so twice.

KYLE:  I’m glad you brought up the trust angle.  I think that is probably my favorite aspect of the film, outside of Ted McCord’s brilliant cinematography.  The setting of a lawless land, populated by rogues is then distilled through three personalities at the center, amplifying the feeling of uneasiness that runs through the heart of Treasure.  The dynamics of trust and betrayal that pervade the bulk of the narrative have quite simply, never been outdone without drifting into satire or melodrama.

 

the-treasure-of-the-sierra-madre.jpg

BEN: The last act truly represents the fulcrum of the triangle started by Dobbs. As a flawed “ideas man,” it was his initiative, and his business sense that allowed them to start the journey. Without Curtin, we wouldn’t have our conscience to guide us, and to keep our compass straight. And, without Howard, we would never have had a journey to go on.

KYLE: That’s a great observation.  In some ways, whenever I view No Country for Old Men, I’m reminded of this, mostly because of the trio of male actors at the center, with each of them representing different aspects of the narrative.

thetreasureofthesierramadre.png

BEN: It’s truly remarkable that John Huston directed his dad, Walter to an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The younger Huston won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and rightfully so.

KYLE: He also won for director.  Really a once in a lifetime situation.

BEN: They say flattery is the highest form of honor, especially when it comes from Mel Brooks.

Here is the original scene:

Here is the homage:

 

KYLE: That’s amazing!

BEN: I had a blast talking about this one, Kyle. 50 years later and the film is still so remarkably strong for its message and its characters. Until next time!

treasure-of-the-sierra-madre.jpg

 

Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow

1999.  Directed by Tim Burton.

 

 

Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow takes a loose interpretation of Washington Irving’s classic story and infuses it with poetic Gothic visuals, a fragile Johnny Depp performance, and a heart felt homage to Hammer Film Productions, to create an artistic slasher film that defies genre conventions with its astounding art direction and beautifully captured sequences of operatic violence.

Ichabod Crane is a scientific police investigator who is dispatched to Sleepy Hollow to investigate a series of murders in which the corpses are being found without their heads.  Soon after his arrival, Crane is thrown into the midst of scheming aristocrats, malignant chicanery, a precarious love interest, and the impending arrival of the spectral Headless Horsemen.

Filmed almost entirely on set, Peter Young and Rich Heinrich’s art direction creates the town of Sleepy Hollow from the ground up, with the artificial feeling of the sets enriching the dreamy atmosphere.  The architecture has a Byzantine quality that offsets the colonial designs with a menacing undercurrent.  Young and Heinrich would go on to win the Oscar for their work.  Colleen Atwood’s Oscar nominated costume design takes Victorian tropes and uses a dash of steampunk to reinforce Crane’s outsider status, contrasting his big city cop with the town’s nobility, who cling to anachronistic ideals of pomp and circumstance.

 

 

Cinematography icon Emmanuel Lubezski uses a Stygian color palette and soft lighting to both emulate the Hammer Film ambiance and to present Sleepy Hollow as an ethereal revelry.  While the action sequences are violent, even the bloodshed has an art house quality, so much so that the viewer often forgets they’re viewing a horror film, an undeniable byproduct of El Chivo’s Oscar nominated work.  Long time Burton collaborator Danny Elfman scored the film, accentuating the Gothic vibe with droning organs and whimsical vigor.

Johnny Depp gives one of his most understated performances as Crane, the would be hero who is completely out of his element.  He’s supported by Christina Ricci, Jeffrey Jones, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Christopher Walken, Caspar Van Dien, Richard Griffiths, Michael Gough, Christopher Lee, and Martin Landau.  Yes, you read that right.  Burton assembled a well oiled machine of top shelf talent in which every participant gladly submits to the melodramatic terror with a playful sense of abandon.  While Andrew Walker’s script doesn’t allow much time for attachment, the sheer amount of talent makes each kill scene a story unto itself, with each of the formidable actors having their moment in the fog drenched spotlight.

 

 

Available now on Netflix, Sleepy Hollow is vintage Burton and a riotous horror departure.  Using amazing visual flourishes and tight cinematography to frame a well known story in a humorously violent package, this film is a welcome addition to any Halloween viewing list. Using a fable like presentation, replete with witches, demons, and redemption, Sleepy Hollow is a unique exercise in American folklore that delivers is a devilishly good fright film.

Highly Recommend.

 

download.png

 

TOBE HOOPER’S THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

1974.  Directed by Tobe Hooper.

download

Controversial.  Appalling.  Rebellious.

Tobe Hooper’s infamous masterpiece is a blue collar shocker that stalwartly remains one of the most seminal horror films ever conceived.

Five teenagers set out on a road trip across the blistering Texas back roads.  They pick up a hitchhiker whose bizarre behaviors are a harbinger of the horrific events waiting to befall them.  When they discover a decrepit farmhouse, the teens unwittingly come face to face with a taxidermic nightmare, a grotesque clan of backwoods killers who are looking for new additions to their congregation of flesh.

The combination of gruesome visuals and sweaty, screen door, Americana cover every inch of this slaughterhouse menagerie.  Using a false premise, insinuating that the story actually occurred was a brilliant choice, evoking a lost America, steeped in esoteric pig’s blood and mud caked,work boots.  Virtually every set could be plucked from a house the viewer has no doubt passed on an endless familial road trip as a child.  The victims are realistically foolhardy and the violence is both brutal and unusually rapid, with most executions happening instantly.  It’s the aftermath of the initial onslaught that garnered the film’s notorious reputation.

Aw0FbDx.png

Daniel Pearl’s cinematography has a vintage quality that gives everything a secondhand feel, using psychedelic oranges to contrast the rustic blues and greens of the locale.  The woods and surrounding environs of the farmhouse are captured with lush wide shots while the interior of the house is shot in a confusing procession of odd angles and extreme closeups.  During the final act, everything switches to restrained voyeurism, including a wonderful long take of the family’s patriarch being brought downstairs for “dinner”.  Robert Burns’s art direction has a repulsive quality that is the perfect accomplice.  From the iconic skin mask of Leatherface to the otherworldly interiors of the house, the most frightening aspect of the film is the idea of what has already transpired, rather than the impending atrocities.

Almost every member of the cast was injured during production,  Marilyn Burns as Sally and Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface display a torturous amount of body work.  Budget constraints required that most of the cast do their own stunts, one of which involved a live chainsaw being perilously close an actor’s neck.  Real blood was used in one of the film’s more dubious scenes and Burns’s costume was so saturated in theater blood that it had almost completely calcified when filming concluded.

download (1).jpg

The film was banned in several countries for its depiction of apathetic violence, and yet, for a horror film, the actual on screen bloodshed is remarkably tame when put against modern contemporaries in the genre.  The combination of lighting effects and Larry Caroll and Sallye Richardson’s serrated film editing leave the bulk of the gore to the viewer’s subconscious.  Hooper and Wayne Bell’s nails on chalkboard soundtrack is the final piece, using an industrial arsenal to mimic Leatherface’s primal savagery.

Available now on Amazon Prime and Huluplus, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an outstanding piece of terror that is essential viewing for any film fan.  This is one of the horror titans, using a wonderful combination of independent film tactics to produce a blood slicked masterwork.  On the surface, this is a legendary slasher film, but deeper examination reveals a thoughtful horror film that delivers unforgettable imagery and a thought provoking commentary on post Vietnam America’s specious grandeur.

Highly.  Highly Recommend.

download (3).jpg