Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford made many movie critics' top ten list, and with good reason. The film - adapted from the novel of the same name by Robert Hanson and the first major directorial debut by Aussie filmmaker Andrew Dominik - is no small feat. It is a sweeping epic with a pitch perfect score by Nick Cave, magnificent cinematography, and brilliant performances by Brad Pitt as James and Cassey Affleck as the star struck, and ultimately spurned, Robert Ford.

Those who praised the movie almost seem to echo in unison that it is the best western since "Unforgiven", which, it would seem to me, is setting the bar rather low. What makes the movie so appealing is the absence of a Clint Eastwood style Byron-esque hero in love with his own damnation, running almost recklessly towards it, a thematic hero Eastwood has been unable to break with since "Unforgiven" swept the Oscars in 1993.

Conservative critics, most notably James Bowman, while praising the film's score and cinematography, have accused it of being a post modernist tale of celebrity worship, and oddly enough, like the film's defenders, claim that Brad Pitt's portrayal of James falls exactly into the category of Eastwood's self absorbed hero. While there is no disputing the fact that Affleck's Ford is a sycophantic admirer of James, I doubt the film is in any way meant to be allegorical, and if it is, it is more by accident than design.

The film, indisputably, has many flaws, the most glaring being it's 160 minute running time, whittled down from it's original span of well over 3 hours. When a film, especially a Western, asks it's audience to sit for over 2 hours, one would expect a little more action than the movie provides. The only heist scene the audience is let in on is the James' gang's last known train robbery that serves as the opening sequence of the film. Also, there is precious little seen of many of the supporting cast, most notably Sam Shepard (Frank James) and Marie-Louise Parker (Zee James).

The movie centers around Jesse's knowledge that he is a man living on borrowed time, who takes into his confidence the star struck Robert Ford, who James' misjudges as being too simple minded or spell bound by James' cult of persona that he feels no threat from him until it is much too late.
Jesse's brutality is slow and methodical, and for the most part, unseen, as he systematically hunts down the remaining members of the Blue Cut Train Robbery gang. What is brilliant about Pitt's performance is that his obsessive paranoia is always well masked behind a facade of cordiality and stoicism. His piercing blue eyes miss nothing, as he casually makes house calls to those who have betrayed him - not to discover where the chess pieces are falling, but to confirm what he already knows by peppering casual conversation with seemingly benign questions that telegraph in no uncertain terms that he is no one's fool.

Pitt allows us brief opportunities to witness the cracks in his veneer, the first being his maniacal beating of one the clan members young nephews to give up the location of his uncle, having to be forcibly subdued before he risks killing the boy in a frenzy. After leaving the barn, Pitt is seen sobbing uncontrollably, his arms wrapped around the neck of his horse. It one of many great moments of this imperfect film - Is his grief is the product of self-pity and the ever looming threat of the hangman's noose, or is he weeping in disgust at his unchecked brutality upon a child similar in age to his own children?

The ambiguity of his inner torment and the cause of it are left for the audience to ponder. The only insight into the true motives - or competing motives - that are the centrifuge of his actions are given in scattered piecemeal throughout the film. In one scene, as the gang awaits the coming of the train in Blue Cut, Missouri, one of the bandits is heard singing an anti-union hymn about "that bastard Lincoln". Earlier on, the robbers engage in a conversation about the virility of General Lee. There is no doubt James has become a folk hero to buoy the spirits of the South after the humiliation of reconstruction, as is well evidenced by the penny books Ford lovingly collects in a box underneath his bed extolling and exaggerating the exploits of the James gang as redeemers of the South's honor. Is James the avenger of the South, or a common thug with a serpentine charm? The movie seems uninterested in answering this question, though it has close to 3 hours to do so.

In the end, Ford is mocked and becomes little more than an errand boy to James, fueling his rage and ultimately leading him to accept the $10,000 bounty for shooting James dead at the request of Missouri's Governor Crittenden.

James' demise is a classic reworking of the tale that has been retold countless times in movies, books, and oral tradition. It involves being shot in the back while fixing a picture - expect in this case, James is seen dusting the picture on a stool, after leaving his sidearms on the love seat. I had wrestled for some time with whether the scene is meant to show James as being careless, or whether it is an explicit act of resignation. The answer is no doubt the latter; James is clearly aware that Ford is simply biding his time, waiting for the opportune time to dispatch of him.

The fact that James removes his guns and turns his back to Ford is his way of removing any glory Ford hopes to gain for his treachery. As Jesse watches Ford aim the revolver at him through the reflection of the picture, Ford also sees the condescension on James' face reflected back, as if to say "There will be no parades for a coward who shoots an unarmed man in the back".

In the end, there are indeed no parades for Robert Ford. Though the act has brought him wealth, he is ridiculed, beaten, spit on, and ultimately assassinated himself.

If you're a fan of Tombstone or The Quick and The Dead, this movie will probably bore you to tears. If you fancy yourself a cinematic intellectual of sorts, you won't find the character's rambling on in any post modern soliloquies either. This movie is a visual treat, and as mentioned earlier Nick Cave's subdued but haunting score is complimented beautifully by the pitch perfect narration of Hugh Ross. Pitt and Affleck are spellbinding, and the supporting cast are flawless.

This movie is far from a masterpiece, but when set besides the endless junk being spit out of Hollywood, it is very watchable, and a film I strongly recommend to my readers.


The movie was co-produced by Ridley Scott, director of Gladiator. In a salute to his fans, there is a scene in the early moments of the film where Jesse's hand is seen gliding over the top of a field of wheat - an almost identical shot that Ridley used at the beginning of Gladiator.



Some Scraps for the Masses

(I am currently pecking away at a review of "The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford. It should be done today, but here's a little something while you wait).

Hello dear readers. I am anxiously picking out a hiding spot downstairs to wait for Jesus to come down the chimney with toys tonight. Please, don't take offence. I was just reflecting on how yesterday, Good Friday, seemed to lack any of the solemnity it once held. Some people I know seemed completely oblivious that it was Easter weekend. "It's just another day to me", as many are fond of saying these days during once widely practiced observances. Sad.

I remember, when I was a kid, school ended at noon on Good Friday. We would hurry home and watch the Ten Commandments or Jesus of Nazareth, but not until we had attended Good Friday services. I remember the Cross and other statuary of the church being draped in purple, and the reverence and respect the priest showed during the occasion. None of these bizarre infomercial-like sermons Catholic priests are becoming more and more fond of.

And, of course, there was the dying of the eggs. I remember Dad used to fill 10 cups with clear water and vinegar and drop a different color tablet in each one, then dip the boiled eggs in by use of some metal hook. After they had dried, my brother and I had free reign to plaster the eggs with these minuscule stickers that came in the package. Ok, enough of that before I start rambling on about walking to school in 10 miles of snow wearing nothing but beaver pelts.

Looks like the passport security breach scandal that Senator Obama had hoped would be the last chink in the armour of the HMS Hillary turned out to be nothing more that a few harmless newbies at the State Department that got a little too nosey and checked the passport records of all the respective presidential candidates. Now, I don't like the thought of the Government rifling through my personal business, but what I like even less is the onslaught of media hyperventilation about whether "this can happen to you". Really, do you actually care if some snot nosed bureaucrat who doesn't know you hauls up your file and sees you went to New Zealand 5 years ago because he's bored? Do you think you're so important that the Government is checking into your traveling habits?

Anyway, I've got a movie review to write, so Happy Easter, and God Bless.



Friday, March 14, 2008

Stress Test of Death

She told me to bring sneakers and wear something comfortable, "she" being the chipper receptionist at my cardiologist's office. I have to take a stress test on Monday, which is a test that helps a doctor determine how your heart handles physical labour. I can save them the time - nothing in my psychological or physical make-up handles labour well. I would not do well in a prison camp, and would probably die within the first 15 minutes of a marathon. I'm not some obese, acne plagued gamer living in my mother's basement, nor am I lazy. I just shudder at words like "shovel" and "exercise". They are permanently eradicated from the memory banks of my brain and I have to be shown cartoon illustrations before I am required to perform either of the aforementioned tasks. I volunteer, work hard, give back to my community and all that other good stuff that still goes on in every community without requiring big government, lefty legislation. I just don't do grunt work.

Now, why does a 35 year old seemingly fit young man have to endure the rigours of a cardiologist and other specialists? Well, as long time readers know, there was a time 4 or 5 years ago when breakfast was a mug half filled with coffee, a bit of milk, and lots of Jack Daniels (my breath was resplendent). It seems this breakfast of champions was not on Health Canada's approved guide to a nutritional breakfast.

Ironically, I own a pair of the abominable eye sores known as "sneakers" due to my past life of debauchery. About 5 years ago, when I first tried to sober up, I was in detox with a nice enough young fellow who had an upcoming court appearance after he had slapped around some kid who owed him money for drugs. He was a kind and intelligent enough young man now that the drugs were coming out of his system, but he didn't own any dress shirts or ties. I felt sorry for the kid, and spruced him up in one of my suits (luckily the fit was perfect). The judge went easy on him. As a gesture of gratitude, as I was leaving, he gave me a pair of expensive sneakers of some brand or the other. He asked me not to ask any questions as to where he had gotten them (I didn't), and they were a perfect fit.

Anyway, I have to get ready to jog on a treadmill strapped up to wires and machines like some lethargic version of the bionic man. I have a feeling this is going to go as well as the time I tried to be a gentleman and light a lady's cigarette with my spanking new Zippo lighter, inadvertently setting half of her hair ablaze (true story).

As for the kid who loaned me the sneakers, he's a pillar of the community now and has helped countless kids come off the junk they're on and lead productive lives. I saw him recently, and the guy went from a skinny coke head to a muscle bound, chiseled-chin crusader. He could probably run the stress test treadmill for 12 hours, then eat the machine for a snack. I expect to be sweating like a fat man eating tacos in a sauna after about 2 minutes. Wish me luck, and send donations in lieu of flowers.



Saturday, March 08, 2008

A Beautiful Case for Staying the Course

The following is an Editorial written by actress Angelina Jolie that appeared in the Washington Post.

Staying to Help in Iraq - We have finally reached a point where humanitarian assistance, from us and others, can have an impact.

By Angelina Jolie Thursday, February 28, 2008; 1:15 PM

The request is familiar to American ears: "Bring them home."
But in Iraq, where I've just met with American and Iraqi leaders, the phrase carries a different meaning. It does not refer to the departure of U.S. troops, but to the return of the millions of innocent Iraqis who have been driven out of their homes and, in many cases, out of the country.
In the six months since my previous visit to Iraq with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, this humanitarian crisis has not improved. However, during the last week, the United States, UNHCR and the Iraqi government have begun to work together in new and important ways.

We still don't know exactly how many Iraqis have fled their homes, where they've all gone, or how they're managing to survive. Here is what we do know: More than 2 million people are refugees inside their own country -- without homes, jobs and, to a terrible degree, without medicine, food or clean water. Ethnic cleansing and other acts of unspeakable violence have driven them into a vast and very dangerous no-man's land. Many of the survivors huddle in mosques, in abandoned buildings with no electricity, in tents or in one-room huts made of straw and mud. Fifty-eight percent of these internally displaced people are younger than 12 years old.

An additional 2.5 million Iraqis have sought refuge outside Iraq, mainly in Syria and Jordan. But those host countries have reached their limits. Overwhelmed by the refugees they already have, these countries have essentially closed their borders until the international community provides support.

I'm not a security expert, but it doesn't take one to see that Syria and Jordan are carrying an unsustainable burden. They have been excellent hosts, but we can't expect them to care for millions of poor Iraqis indefinitely and without assistance from the U.S. or others. One-sixth of Jordan's population today is Iraqi refugees. The large burden is already causing tension internally.

The Iraqi families I've met on my trips to the region are proud and resilient. They don't want anything from us other than the chance to return to their homes -- or, where those homes have been bombed to the ground or occupied by squatters, to build new ones and get back to their lives. One thing is certain: It will be quite a while before Iraq is ready to absorb more than 4 million refugees and displaced people. But it is not too early to start working on solutions. And last week, there were signs of progress.

In Baghdad, I spoke with Army Gen. David Petraeus about UNHCR's need for security information and protection for its staff as they re-enter Iraq, and I am pleased that he has offered that support. General Petraeus also told me he would support new efforts to address the humanitarian crisis "to the maximum extent possible" -- which leaves me hopeful that more progress can be made.

UNHCR is certainly committed to that. Last week while in Iraq, High Commissioner António Guterres pledged to increase UNHCR's presence there and to work closely with the Iraqi government, both in assessing the conditions required for return and in providing humanitarian relief.
During my trip I also met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has announced the creation of a new committee to oversee issues related to internally displaced people, and a pledge of $40 million to support the effort.

My visit left me even more deeply convinced that we not only have a moral obligation to help displaced Iraqi families, but also a serious, long-term, national security interest in ending this crisis.

Today's humanitarian crisis in Iraq -- and the potential consequences for our national security -- are great. Can the United States afford to gamble that 4 million or more poor and displaced people, in the heart of Middle East, won't explode in violent desperation, sending the whole region into further disorder?

What we cannot afford, in my view, is to squander the progress that has been made. In fact, we should step up our financial and material assistance. UNHCR has appealed for $261 million this year to provide for refugees and internally displaced persons. That is not a small amount of money -- but it is less than the U.S. spends each day to fight the war in Iraq. I would like to call on each of the presidential candidates and congressional leaders to announce a comprehensive refugee plan with a specific timeline and budget as part of their Iraq strategy.

As for the question of whether the surge is working, I can only state what I witnessed: U.N. staff and those of non-governmental organizations seem to feel they have the right set of circumstances to attempt to scale up their programs. And when I asked the troops if they wanted to go home as soon as possible, they said that they miss home but feel invested in Iraq.
They have lost many friends and want to be a part of the humanitarian progress they now feel is possible.

It seems to me that now is the moment to address the humanitarian side of this situation. Without the right support, we could miss an opportunity to do some of the good we always stated we intended to do.
Angelina Joli

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

You Asked - I Delivered

Hope everyone had a great weekend. My dear readers have asked me for a light and fluffy blog piece - like a nice piece of French toast, or Barack Obama's positions on dealing with rogue states. No dry dissertations on Rudy's meltdown, which James Bowman called "far fetched" (I would have to agree with Mr. Bowman on his assessment). No state of the race stuff, no tub thumping about the benefits of limited government, low tax rates, and water boarding liberals everytime they use "the children" as an excuse to justify any tax hike, or wasteful spending. Just fart jokes and armpit noises, so to speak. I shall try my best not to disappoint, and proceed with my trademark blogging by numbers.

1 - You know when a husband's wife asks him to make a wish after blowing a loose eye lash away, or blowing out a birthday candle? This warm and fuzzy look appears on his face, and she's thinking he's wishing that in 30 years, they'll be sitting on the porch as grandchildren scuttle about their feet. Now, imagine as she's looking at him making his wish, a skanky, coked-up hooker suddenly appears behind him. That would be priceless.

2 - I somewhat reluctantly watched the "The Incredibles" this weekend, and was surprised to find some admirable conservative messages. The cartoon took pot-shots at our overly litigious culture, and the importance of extraordinary people in our society. None of this lefty, 'it takes a village' schmaltz about how everyone is special in their own way.

3- I'm going to be celebrating 44 months of sobriety on the 5th of March, so have a drink for me...or a Diet Coke.

4-We will be officially endorsing John McCain in a upcoming blog. We do not do so with the enthusiasm we may have had for say, Fred Thompson or Newt Gingrich, but we must rally around Senator McCain to save us from the dangers of the dragon Lady, or the charming guy with the silver tongue and the head full of spam.

5-And in closing, here's some news from the Hype's files of the weird. Fox news reports that things got ugly at a Massatuchettes Chuck E. Cheese when the mother of the 9-year-old birthday boy apparently became enraged because another woman's son was "hogging" an arcade game, Natick, Mass., police said. Catherine Aliaga, 38, and Tarsha Williams, 33, both of Boston, will be summoned into court to answer charges of simple assault and battery stemming from the scuffle, Sgt. Paul Thompson said. Thompson told the MetroWest Daily News that police received a number of 911 calls about the fight Saturday night. He said what started as a birthday celebration turned into a "birthday melee."

6- It ain't easy, bein' cheesy.



Saturday, March 01, 2008

William F Buckley JR - RIP

When I was 14 years old, I picked up a magazine that had no business being in the waiting room of an Emergency department of a small city hospital in Northern New Brunswick, Canada. The magazine was National Review. Suddenly ideas and thoughts that had been discussed around the kitchen table with my dad came to life with a clarity and irreverent wit with which I had never possessed the ability to articulate.

And those words. Those beautiful words, that jumped and glistened like sun reflected off water on the most glorious summer day. They were the words of a man named William F Buckley Jr. He taught me how to write, and he helped shape the man I am today.

Of the many fond memories and reflections on a man of such importance and faith, few have moved me more than that of Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Wiffler, writing in National Review Online.

"My younger brother and I were stopped at a light at West 56th St and 7th Ave in Manhattan in 1991, when we both saw WFB crossing the street between our car and the one ahead of us.
Jaywalking, now that I think of it. I opened my driver's window and yelled "Mr. Buckley!" He turned, and I shouted "hello," and said "Good Afternoon, Sir! National Review subscriber!" He smiled and said thanks, giving a little wave. I pushed my luck, saying "Can we get your autograph?" His response was priceless. His smallish grin transformed into a huge one, he turned on his heels and came over to our car, responding "Certainly!" As he arrived at the car, he asked if I had received the latest issue. I said that I had, and it was at home. "Lots of good stuff in that one," he advised. He scribbled his signature, and said thanks for making him feel like a celebrity. We could not have been happier if we had met The Beatles. "