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An outlaw, a gangster and a bee 

‘Assassination’ luminous and lovely; ‘Gangster’ captivates; ‘Bee’ is all Seinfeld.

PAINT YOUR WAGON
  • PAINT YOUR WAGON

Some of the best advice I ever received was: “Never meet your heroes.” Under close inspection, the most highly polished idol will be found to have flaws. All too often, an admirer has found his or her alabaster god to be only plaster and sawdust when seen up close.

In a nutshell, that's the story behind the plot of “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Though it's a long film — two hours and 40 minutes — and even though its plot often feels like a thing made of rain, it's still a truly stirring piece of cinema, a magic lantern slide of a film, full of artful blurs and soft focus, tight shots of grass in the wind and light. Add to that some truly virtuoso performances by Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck and others, and you've got a Western that remakes the genre.

Affleck plays one of the title roles: young, naive would-be bandit Robert Ford. From the time he can remember, Ford has been reading dime novels about Jesse James — florid, pulpy trash that has sold Ford and the rest of America on the idea of James as robber prince. When he gets old enough, Ford seeks out James (Brad Pitt) to join his gang, and finds the truth of him: He's a moody, murderous, ghost-white slip of a man, often assaulted by depression and guilt. The longer they ride together, the more Ford comes to resent James, who obviously doesn't want the notoriety he has been given. After James begins systematically killing the members of his old gang, Ford goes to the authorities, agreeing to bring in his old hero in exchange for the reward. From there, the film quickly rises to a climax that weds Jesse James and Robert Ford together in both history and infamy.

While I could have done without the intrusive narration throughout the film — passages from the book the movie came from — I absolutely loved “The Assassination of Jesse James.” Whereas my other favorite Western, “Unforgiven,” touches on the theme of infamy and how it can come back to haunt you, “Assassination” goes full bore after the issue of fame and mythmaking in the West (even the tongue-twister of a title plays on the destructive elements of fame, aping the titles of the dime novels that turned the real Jesse James from a murderous sociopath into a six-gun-toting Robin Hood in the popular imagination). Like sausage, the creation of heroes isn't something you want to witness — damning for both the idol and the idolizer. Because of this, the most beautiful and heart-rending parts of the film are actually those that come after James has been martyred, with a guilt-ravaged Ford working the vaudeville circuit, doomed to re-enact the murder of his friend night after night before an increasingly hostile crowd; actively helping create the monster that he'll run from and, eventually, die for.

In short: a lovely, luminous piece of cinema, sure to attract nominations for all involved come Oscar season. Check it out soon.

David Koon

‘American Gangster'

The title of “American Gangster” announces the film's intention to become a major entrant into the mobster canon, but it's deceiving. The film is really a mash-up of the gangster and detective genres.

The screenplay is based on a 2000 New York magazine profile of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), a 1960s Harlem kingpin who made his fortune buying heroin direct from Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. The megalomaniacal Lucas of the profile takes a back seat in the film to a modest and calculating mob boss who knows that ostentation can get him in trouble. (Funny though: He has the gall to think that popping a rival in the middle of a busy street won't.)

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