How the West Was Wasted

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

(Warner Bros.)

Beautifully shot, masterfully acted, and 19 hours too long, Assassination is an uneven mix of the artful and the arty that never had a shot at bringing in the audience that Brad Pitt's chiseled melon should've delivered. Pitt is great, playing fellow Missourian Jesse James as a mixture of emo kid and psycho killer. Casey Affleck has the tougher role as the titular chickenshit, delivering an expertly drawn portrait of a man you wouldn't want to be in a room with for 10 minutes, but are stuck with for an entire movie. He grates on you, which may be a commentary on your attraction to charismatic evil over nebbishy normality, but hey, I'm trying to watch a movie here. Similarly testing is the glacial pacing, with lots of gorgeous shots of dismal countryside that offer plentiful opportunities for a smoke break. — Jordan Harper

The James Gang stormed quietly through theaters.
The James Gang stormed quietly through theaters.

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The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert FordThe Brave OneElizabeth: The Golden AgeImitation of Life

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The Brave One

(Warner Bros.)

Jodie Foster has been making revenge flicks all her life, but everybody jumped down her throat for dropping the pretenses and appearing in this vigilante revenge fantasy. Everybody oughta lighten up. For one thing, the world could use a new Death Wish. For another, Foster can manage dozens more facial expressions than Charles Bronson did. The film also has a streak of dark irony, as Foster starts out lamenting the death of grungy old New York, just before strolling into a brutal old-school murder/beating. The movie stays in that now long-gone New York, and Foster keeps stumbling into more random crimes than Angela Lansbury. She becomes the Punisher, and blammo! — you've got a movie. — Harper

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

(Universal)

Shekhar Kapur's follow-up to his somber 1998 spectacle is a gas, gas, gas — Bollywood by way of the BBC, a period piece in which everyone acts decidedly modern (Clive Owen especially, as a right horny Sir Walter Raleigh) and every scene cries out for a musical number at its climactic conclusion. That Cate Blanchett was nominated for an Oscar is stunning — not because she's undeserving (though there is that), but because who could pay attention to the performances when the sets and costumes do all the heavy lifting, while the actors flounce around like high-schoolers on the world's most expensive set? There are copious deleted scenes (Mary Queen of Scots' severed head!) and making-ofs, including one sponsored by Volkswagen that's likely to offset the cost of this garishly soapy production. — Robert Wilonsky

Imitation of Life: Special Edition

(Universal)

"The most shameless tearjerker of the fall," proclaimed The New York Times in November 1934 upon the release of John Stahl's original production of Imitation of Life, starring Claudette Colbert; 25 years later, when Lana Turner stepped into Douglas Sirk's glamtastic redo, Times legend Bosley Crowther harrumphed, "the most shameless tearjerker in a couple of years." So be it — no one ever accused the novel or the two adaptations of harshing their melodrama. But no one ever accused the films, both available here, of being unimportant either, given their treatment of race and sexuality in ways never before seen onscreen; Sirk's version especially still stings, even with the overwrought strings doing the audience's heavy lifting. Plenty of scholars and historians here attest to its importance; don't let them ruin the jerking of tears, alas. — Wilonsky

 
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