The Assassination of Jesse James

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In the future, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford will be regarded as a classic. It’s a haunting epic packed with beauty and brutality thanks to Roger Deakins‘s finest cinematography, Brad Pitt‘s best performance to date, and a narrative that conforms to zero biopic conventions. However, at the time of its release writer/director Andrew Dominik‘s adaptation was a box office dud, grossing less than $4m across the globe on a $36m budget. A part of the problem was that it wasn’t the Jesse James movie Warner Bros. wanted. They were thinking Unforgiven, not two and a half hours of obsession and regret. Heck, they probably would’ve preferred American Outlaws, the other recent financial (and creative) misfire starring Colin Farrell as a plucky Jesse James. To a degree, that’s fair on the studio’s part: wanting the most commercial movie possible from what’s now considered a non-commercial genre. The movie went through various edits due to Warners disliking of Dominik’s cut, but, despite their efforts, what they released still wasn’t the shoot ‘em up they were hoping for. Instead the result was something people have developed an immense passion for since its 2007 release. This Saturday in New York City there’s a revival screening of the film, and several sites (including us) have used the event as an excuse to praise the flop. If you’re in New York and have the time and money, do not miss out. The Assassination of Jesse James is a theatrical experience every one of its acolytes should experience. One of its greatest […]

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There’s a moment about halfway through Denis Villeneuve’s sprawling, occasionally brilliant yet sharply uneven film Prisoners that finds Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki do something that we’ve seen so many detectives do in movies before: in a bout of frustration, he swipes his arms across his cubicle desk, violently sending his evidence and other materials into a labyrinthine clutter. But this fit of anger ends up leading to a serendipitous discovery – the chaotic new arrangement of papers on the floor reveals for the detective a clue that had been hiding under his nose in plain sight the whole time. This is moment is, in short, a cliché. Yet on the other side of cinematographer Roger Deakins’s lens, the moment takes on a plentiful, foreboding, and eerie quality. The muted tones, carefully composed yet slightly agape mise en scène, and rich depth of field collectively transform a moment we’ve seen so many times before into something considerably more. Through brilliant lensing, a cliché is elevated into the possibility that something, anything can happen in the detailed and uncertain world of this film.

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Brad Pitt in Killing Them Softly

After only about five people paid to see Andrew Dominik‘s beautifully poetic The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the popular belief was that any director in that position would follow up his ambitious financial failure with something more commercial. While Killing Them Softly has far more public appeal than Jesse James, Dominik has fortunately made another film unafraid to polarize. Set in 2008, following the economic collapse, mobsters have been seeking easier ways to make a quick buck or two, there is no clear order left, and, in this America, as the smooth contract killer Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) puts it, you’re on your own. Cogan — who’s sort of the protagonist — is brought down to New Orleans after a series of robberies hit Markie Trattman’s (Ray Liotta) poker games. With criminals afraid to play and spend their money, it’s Cogan’s job to get them back to playing, by finding the two men responsible for the latest theft, two big time losers named Frankie (Scoot McNairy, now holding the record for the most number of irritating characters in a single year) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn). This reads as all fairly simple, but there’s more to this story than the trailers have been leading us to believe. Killing Them Softly is, in fact, almost more of an angry, loud voicemail left for the politicians who aren’t all that different from the lost, scrambling criminals we see in the film.

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For 36 days straight, we’ll be exploring the famous 36 Dramatic Situations by examining a film that exemplifies each one. From family killing family to prisoners in need of asylum, we brush off the 19th century list in order to remember that it’s still incredibly relevant today. Whether you’re seeking a degree in Literature, love movies, or just love seeing things explode, our feature should have something for everyone. If it doesn’t, please don’t put a snake in my boot. Part 35 of the 36-part series takes a look at “Rivalry of Superior and Inferior” with Toy Story.

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A director generally frames a shot, where a cinematographer essentially brings out the life in said shot. This is where the latter gets recognized.

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