Movie #118: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Director: Andrew Dominik

Starring: Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker

Academy Award Nominations (2008):

Best Achievement in Cinematography: Roger Deakins

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Casey Affleck

jessejamesrobertford

During the winter of 1882 Jesse James (Pitt) is increasingly paranoid and depressed after the retirement of his older brother and collapse of his gang.  Bob Ford (Affleck), a young outlaw who idolizes James, talks his way into his hero’s inner circle only to turn against him. (501 Must-See Movies, 2010).

For a movie that spells out what happens in the title, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford takes a really long time to get to that ending.  For all the good qualities of this film, I have a difficult time getting over how slow this movie progresses.  There is a certain element of suspense as each event builds to the ultimate finale, however, I feel like it could have been an hour shorter with the same effect.

jessejamesrobertford1

The exchanges between Pitt and Affleck help in building the tension throughout this film.  I was somewhat skeptical of Brad Pitt playing Jesse James.  It just doesn’t come across as the type of role he would take.  Fortunately he does a decent job in portraying the paranoid, aging outlaw.

Casey Affleck’s performance as Robert Ford walks a very fine line.  He does a good job of depicting the younger brother type who is always picked on.  He does a decent job idolizing Jesse, but it comes across in both a creepy, naive, arrogant way that’s outputting for me.  He received an Oscar nomination for his performance, which I understand, but for me his performance just didn’t quite click.

It’s also interesting to see people like Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, Mary-Louise Parker, and Zooey Deschanel to a lesser degree given the other bigger roles each has done since this film.  They blend well into a Western-era film even though it’s not the type of movie any of them would typically do.

I go back and forth with modern western films.  There are some films that I enjoy, however, I feel like the western genre in general is something that was done a lot better in the past.  The charm of older westerns for me is in the primitive film making techniques.  The sometimes over-the-top shootouts and inaccurate special effects are some of the most charming parts of the older films, and modern films just miss that “it” factor.

jessejamesrobertford2

Having now seen The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford twice, my initial observations of the film were only reaffirmed.  The film has its charm and the actors did a surprisingly good job.  However, it could have been an hour shorter and told the same story.  It isn’t on my “to watch again” list, and I think it’s one that can be skipped.

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Advertisements

Movie #100: There Will Be Blood (2007)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Barry Del Sherman, Matthew Braden Stringer, and Sydney McCallister

Academy Awards (2008):

Best Achievement in Cinematography: Robert Elswit

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role: Daniel Day-Lewis

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Achievement in Art Direction: Jack Fisk, Jim Erickson

Best Achievement in Directing: Paul Thomas Anderson

Best Achievement in Editing: Dylan Tichenor

Best Achievement in Sound Editing: Matthew Wood, Christopher Scarabosio

Best Motion Picture of the Year: JoAnne Sellar, Paul Thomas Anderson, Daniel Lupi

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published: Paul Thomas Anderson

therewillbeblood

“Daniel Plainview (Day-Lewis) is a ruthless oil prospector leaving a trail of broken promises and conned farmers wherever he goes.  When his search for oil brings him to the Californian community of Little Boston, local preacher Eli Sunday (Dano) becomes determined to at first understand, and later stop, the tyrannical Plainview.” (From 501 Must-See Movies book.)

Seemingly coming out of no where, There Will Be Blood ended up on many film critics Top 10 films of 2007, and later in the best of the decade list for the 2000s.  Having now seen the film twice, I still don’t understand why this was the case.

Without Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood would have slipped through the cracks as just another film.  For me, his performance is one of, if not the only redeeming quality of this film.  Ghandi is the only other film of his that I’ve seen, but I don’t even remember his performance in that film.  From a quick look on IMDB, he’s very particular with the acting jobs he takes.

therewillbebloodlewis

Day-Lewis’ stage presence is of the highest quality.  Like his character Daniel Plainview, Day-Lewis does a great job of taking control of all of his screen time.  He portrays the ruthless, and also heartless, oil man looking to take advantage of anyone he can.  Going so far as to adopting an orphan boy to give the ‘family man’ perception, Plainview apologizes for nothing.

There-Will-Be-Blood-Paul-Dano

Paul Dano had a huge role to film as the primary antagonist for Daniel Plainview.  I think he holds his own well throughout the film, but like his character Eli Sunday, Dano’s acting is overshadowed and overpowered by Day-Lewis.

Something that stood out to me as far as cinematography was the long pans and incorporating background music while telling the story without any dialogue.  I think there is a fine line in how a director uses this.  Though I think there were a number of good scenes throughout There Will Be Blood, I felt like some of the non-dialogue scenes were too drawn out.  Some of those could have been cut shorter without losing the dramatic effect that was achieved.

I wouldn’t say the storyline was pedestrian, but for me it was forgettable.  Man cons innocent people, someone stands up to him, blah blah blah.  Once again, Day-Lewis brings it to life in an engaging way that provides some entertainment value.  His back and forth with Dano was interesting as it developed, however, one or two people’s performances can only take a film so far.  I think for a movie that ran this long, perhaps a couple more prominent characters or a couple of sub-plots could have helped.

There Will Be Blood benefits most from an Oscar-worthy performance from Daniel Day-Lewis.  He brings to life this story of an ambitious oil man who will stop at nothing to strike it rich.  It’s not one I’ll see again, perhaps it’s my disappointment with Paul Thomas Anderson films, but still, it was enjoyable to a degree.

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie #81: True Grit (1969)

Director: Henry Hathaway

Starring: John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby, Robert Duvall, and Dennis Hopper

Academy Awards (1970):

Best Actor in a Leading role: John Wayne

Academy Award Nominations:

Best Music, Original Song: Don Black, Elmer Bernstein for the song ‘True Grit’

truegritposter

 

Mattie Ross (Darby) hires the aging, alcoholic US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Wayne) to hunt down Tom Chaney (Jeff Corey) the man who killed her father.  They are joined by La Boeuf (Campbell), a Texas Ranger searching for Chaney to collect a reward for previous crimes he had committed.  

This film has a lot to offer.  Though obviously a Western, there’s also the dynamics of the young Mattie seeking vengeance and in a way saving Rooster from completely destroying himself with his alcoholism.  Kim Darby has moments of being young, idealistic, and at times naive, but her hard-headed grit help establish her as more than the stereotypical damsel who can’t take care of herself. 

truegrit

John Wayne’s performance in True Grit earned him his only Academy Award, though honestly it was long overdue.  I can’t say I’ve watched a whole lot of Wayne’s films, but he particularly stands out here as a man who has certainly seen better days.  Though he’s been roughed up in life, there’s a delicate balance in working with the young Mattie Ross where Cogburn is both the stubborn S.O.B. everyone knows, but also having a heart in caring for Mattie.  His chemistry both with Darby and Campbell’s La Bouef make for a number of great one-liners, but also gives the story a genuine feel.

 

 

True Grit (1969) Though I’ve seen this film before, I didn’t really remember Robert Duvall’s role as Ned Pepper.  He was hard-nosed enough to be believable as a villain, but at the same time somewhat disinterested in Chaney’s troubles.  Though Chaney was a member of his gang, Pepper was more concerned with keeping himself out of trouble with the law.  Duvall does this convincingly, competent enough to hold his own, but in the end more worried about saving his own skin than Chaney’s.

 

 

Though True Grit benefits form strong lead and supporting performances, there are a couple of elemental things that bugged me.  Nothing major, but still a little bothersome.  One was Kim Darby’s age.  I just couldn’t believe her as a 14-year-old.  I realize using older actors and actresses is common, the writers could have said she was older without losing anything story-wise with it.  The other is more of a pitfall in older war and western movies.  The deaths, shootings, and fighting weren’t believable.  The worst of this was when Chaney hit La Boeuf with a rock.  I seriously doubt that a blow like that could kill someone, and Campbell’s performance as a mortally wounded man just didn’t work for me. 

Overall I thought this film was great, I want to make that clear in light of my minor complaints.

truegritwayne

True Grit is one of those films that should not be re-made. Period.  Especially by someone like the Coen Brothers.  They’ve proven that they can come up with original material, so why did they have to remake a classic.  As much as I like Jeff Bridges, I must say I was disappointed when I found out he was going to play Rooster Cogburn.  Some characters should be associated with one and only one actor.  Rooster Cogburn is one of those.  

True Grit is an entertaining Western that has great chemistry between the lead performers, enough smart alack quips to be funny, and lovingly caring enough to bring balance.  John Wayne does great in this movie, and deserved the Academy Award he received for his performance.  I could revisit this film from time to time,  it’s just that good.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars. 

Movie #71: Dances with Wolves (1990)

Director: Kevin Costner

Starring: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Green, Rodney A Grant, and Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman

Academy Awards (1991)

Best Picture: Jim Wilson, Kevin Costner

Best Director: Kevin Costner

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium: Michael Blake

Best Cinematography: Dean Semler

Best Sound: Russell Williams

Best Film Editing: Neil Travis

Best Music, Original Score: John Barry

Academy Award Nominations

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Kevin Costner

Best Art Direction-Set Decoration: Lisa Dean, Jeffrey Beecroft

Best Costume Design: Elsa Zamparelli

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Graham Greene

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Mary McDonnell

danceswithwolves

Union soldier Lt. John Dunbar (Costner) requests a post on the American Frontier at Fort Sedgwick on the Great Plains.  He goes there to see the frontier, as he says, before it’s gone.  Though paranoid at first, he befriends the local Sioux Indian tribe and a wolf that always seems to watch him that he eventually names “Two Socks.”  Working through a clear language barrier with the Sioux, Dunbar learns the tribe has raised Stands With A Fist (McDonnell), a white orphan who does a lot of the interpreting.  Dunbar eventually falls in love with and marries her.

Transitioning from a Union soldier, Dunbar becomes known as Dances with Wolves by the tribe, and after his marriage to Stands With A Fist, spends all of his time with the tribe.  As the tribe plans to migrate, Dances returns to his fort to retrieve a diary he has kept telling of his experiences, only to find out more soldiers have arrived at the fort.  Their intent is to overtake the local tribes given the intelligence Dunbar had been sent out to gather.  Dances is conflicted and experiences the abuse of the gun-happy Union soldiers and has to decide whether he is an American or a Sioux.

danceswithwolves6

This film has a lot of things that appeal to my interests: American frontier history, Native American culture, romance, etc.  The story itself is very well done, and has a good balance of historical accuracy, though some liberties were taken.  There was a Fort Sedgwick in Colorado, Fort Hays, the place where Dunbar departs from at the beginning of the film, is in Kansas.  On the other hand, the film depicts the Sioux as peaceful and the Pawnee as the aggressors, though historically it was the other way around.

The story also does a good job of portraying the difficulty in overcoming the language barrier between the Native Americans and the Union soldiers.  Graham Greene does a great job as the Sioux Medicine Man ‘Ten Bears’, and he, Costner, and McDonnell all deserved the Academy Award nominations they received.  It was interesting to contrast Greene’s ‘Ten Bears’ character who was more inquisitive and demonstrated wisdom and patience, with Grant’s ‘Wind in His Hair’ who was more the aggressive warrior type.

Dunbar’s relationship with Stands With A Fist was very touching throughout the film.  McDonnell did a great job of portraying the conflicted woman who had to face her past prior to her being adopted by the Sioux.  Though guarded at first, she opens up and embraces her origins and overcomes the loss of her husband and falls in love with Dances with Wolves.

danceswithwolves7

The cinematography, given the scope and scale of some of the scenes, is top-notch.  Very little CGI was used in this film, as CGI was still in its infancy.  It makes scenes like the buffalo hunt all the more impressive.  They ended up using several thousand buffalo and shooting the scene over three weeks time.  Largely shot in South Dakota and Wyoming, Dances with Wolves has a lot of great scenery shots, which I think adds just the right touch to the film.

This was Kevin Costner’s first film to direct.  He broke two cardinal rules of new directors: filming with animals, and filming with children.  Though there was a lot of speculation on how well this film would do, it grossed over $400 million worldwide, and about $180 million in the U.S.  It cost about $22 million to make.

I think Costner had a real winner here.

danceswithwolves1

 

Dances with Wolves does a great job of telling a piece of America’s past.  Though it’s a fictionalized version or historical events, this film does a great job of communicating the plight of the Native American as he was kicked off his land and forced into submission by an outside invader.  For directing the film, its message, and the lasting impact on the image of the Native Americans, the Sioux Nation adopted Costner as an honorary member.

danceswithwolves3

I was incredibly disgusted with the trigger-happy Union soldiers who went straight to their guns when they saw Dunbar dressed as a Sioux Indian and their juvenile killing of Two Socks.  While I’m not a fan of killing, I was a little satisfied when the soldiers got their due for their arrogance.

To step into the political spectrum briefly, I think we as a country would have a far different attitude on the wars we enter into if we would just take the time to see things from the other point of view.  Perhaps we are hated because we’re trying to impose our way of life on others.  A film like Dances with Wolves makes me ask questions and have thoughts about these sorts of things.

danceswithwolves5

I would highly recommend this film, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, cinematography, and acting throughout.  It’s one I’ll probably revisit on a semi-regular basis.

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Movie #61: Bad Company (1972)

badcompany

 

Director: Robert Benton

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Barry Brown, Jim, Davis, David Huddleston, Jerry Houser, and John Savage.

Drew Dixon (Brown) is a young man from Ohio avoiding enlistment in the Union Army in the American Civil War.  He decides to head west and become an outlaw, at his parent’s blessing, and ends up joining Jake Rumsey’s (Bridges) gang.  His group consists of other draft-dodgers, and they head out west to make a new life as outlaws.

The harsh realities of their new life, though, quickly destroy their hopes and dreams of fortune.  They have to deal with unforgiving competition and a lot of the work that goes into making their new living.  They’re robbed at gunpoint by Big Joe (Huddleston) and his men.  Eventually, three of the five gang members are killed: ten-year old Boog Bookin is shot while stealing a pie from a windowsill and brothers Jim Bob and Loney Logan are both hung by Big Joe’s men.

The film itself is fairly underwhelming.  Aside from solid performances from both Bridges and Brown, not a whole  lot stood out in my mind.  However, that’s one of the main drives of the film.  It breaks down the romanticized Hollywood version of being an outlaw in the Old West.

Drew Dixon deals with the moral implications of what he’s doing.  While he maintains throughout the film that he’ll do things the fair and right way, he deceives the rest of the gang.  His parents sent him out with a sizable amount of money he’s got stashed in the sole of his boot.  His exchange when Jake calls him on this was entertaining, and Drew realizes his deceptive nature and I think becomes more open to the outlaw lifestyle.

Story-wise it seems like this film is a series of shorter films mashed together.  Each encounter: Drew meeting Jake, their first encounter with Big Joe’s gang, the aftermath of each gang members deaths, and ultimately reconciliation between Drew and Jake, could be a short film in and of itself.

Though Bad Company does a good job of breaking down the stereotypical Western film, I was overall unimpressed by it.  At times it was good, but on the whole I was glad it wasn’t any longer than it was.  I won’t see this one again, plain and simple.

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars.

High Noon (1952)

High Noon.

Gary Cooper’s character Marshal Will Kane gets married Grace Kelly’s character, Amy.  Before they leave town, Kane learns a man he’d arrested and who was up for execution has been pardoned and is now out to take his vengeance on Will.  As Kane tries to recruit deputies to fight Frank Miller and his gang once they reach town, he is rejected by everyone and ends up having to face the gang alone.

Gary Cooper was 51 when this movie was filmed, and he commands every scene he’s in.  It’s fitting that he won the Oscar for Best Actor for this film. His other Oscar came from Sergeant York, another film I’ll watch at some point for this project.

It’s interesting watching Lloyd Bridges as the Deputy Marshal.  This is a sharp contrast from what I know Lloyd Bridges for (Hot Shots!, Airplane, etc.)  The others were from much later in his career, this was probably a job to continue to establish himself.

The dynamic between Kane and Ramirez, his ex-flame, brings more realism than idealism that you get with Grace Kelly’s character, Amy.

I did a quick IMDB check on Grace Kelly, and this role seems to be one of her first of major merit, and still early on in her career, just two years after her first credits appear.  She has a youth and innocence that comes with, well, her youth.  The tender and at times naive character she plays gives balance and humanity, something for Kane to fight for and a future outside of law enforcement.  Her background also gives good context as to why she is a Quaker, opposes fighting, and wants Kane to start a new life.

One of the sobering conversations had in this film takes place between Kane and Judge Percy Mettrick.  In it Mettrick describes how an honest man who works as a marshal or sheriff and end up dieing alone or too early because of what they do for a living.  This conversation encompassed a good deal of what the film deals with as Kane cannot find a single person to stand with him, even though he’s been the sheriff for many many years.

The realism of this film is probably what stands out most.  An hour and a half long, this movie covers about an hour and a half’s time as Kane tries to recruit deputies and the gunfight at the end.  This sets the movie apart because they don’t have a lot of the traditional elements of westerns: horse chases, multiple gunfights, etc.  It deals much more with the emotional side.

John Wayne criticized this film because he thought it was an allegory for McCarthyism.  It was rumored that Rio Bravo was made as a counter to this film.  I think approaching the movie from the emotional side of things brings a different dynamic that sets the movie apart from others.  The American Film Institute ranked this movie #27 on their 10th Anniversary Top 100 films of All-Time list.  The distinction from traditional westerns probably contributes to this ranking.

My overall opinion is that this movie is a nice alternative to the traditional western, with above average acting and a convincing lead in Gary Cooper.  I probably won’t watch it again, but I’m glad I’ve watched it once.

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)

Image

John Wayne, in his second of three cavalry movies, plays Captain Nathan Brittles, a Cavalryman who is nearing retirement and takes one final mission in the last week of his career.

Two things stand out in this movie: Wayne’s ability to play a much older character and the cinematography in showing the various landscapes in color.

John Wayne was 33 at the time this movie was filmed, however, he is playing a man many years further along in life.  I enjoyed the conflict this character has with leading his troops, succeeding in missions, but knowing the day was drawing near where he would have to move on to something else.  Brittles was a friend of George Custer, who had recently been killed in the Battle of Little Bighorn.  This kind of old guard passing on to the next generation shows through as Brittles asks to stay on in more of a consulting role.  His commanding officer quickly retorts that if the next man who will lead the troops gives an order, the men will still look to him.

From the 501 must-see movies book, regarding Wayne’s portrayal of a much older man.  “There is a moving moment when he wishes to read the inscription on a watch his troops have given him as a farewell gift and he shyly reaches for a pair of reading spectacles.”

This was the only John Wayne cavalry film to have color.  The only Academy Award this movie was nominated for was Cinematography, Color.  It won, and understandably so.  There is one particular scene where the cavalrymen are stampeding, and the camera follows one particular cover wagon as it attempts to adapt to the terrain.  I found myself hoping and anticipating it falling over, but that did not happen.  I wonder how many takes it took to get it right though.

My overall opinion of this film is that it does good with the subject material and John Wayne does more than enough to carry the movie.  I don’t imagine I’ll watch this one again, but as with many movies I’ve seen as part of this project, I am glad I’ve watched it.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5