jesse james (henry king, 1939)

1939 was a famous year in the classic era of Hollywood film. Ten movies were nominated for Best Picture, and many of them are still watched and loved to this day:

  • Dark Victory
  • Gone with the Wind
  • Goodbye, Mr. Chips
  • Love Affair
  • Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
  • Ninotchka
  • Of Mice and Men
  • Stagecoach
  • The Wizard of Oz
  • Wuthering Heights

Gone with the Wind was by far the top grossing film of the year. But the movie which came in second place on that list did not receive a single Oscar nomination: Jesse James.

The movie starred a 25-year-old Tyrone Power as Jesse, with Henry Fonda as his brother, Frank. Also in the cast were Nancy Kelly, Randolph Scott, Henry Hull, Slim Summerville, Brian Donlevy, Donald Meek, Jane Darwell, and the ever-present John Carradine as Robert Ford. (When I say ever-present, I mean it ... Carradine was in nine pictures in 1939 alone, including Stagecoach. Only 33 years old, he had already appeared in more than 50 movies.) One of the "historical data assemblers" was Jesse's granddaughter, which may account in part for the way the movie plays loose with the facts.

In this movie, Jesse and Frank have the people's support because the Brothers fight against the railroads. Jesse turns bad, but it's always blamed on circumstances, and when he dies at the hands of Bob Ford, Ford is the villain, not Jesse.

It's claim to fame is largely due to a scene where Frank and Jesse leap, with their horses, off a cliff into a river. A horse reportedly died during the filming of the scene, leading to the American Humane Association becoming a monitor for Hollywood films. They protested the release of the film ... since it finished #2 at the box office that year, I'm guessing the protests didn't keep people out of the theaters.

The acting is good, with Nancy Kelly getting a couple of showcase scenes that might have worked as Oscar bait, except Vivien Leigh was already going to win as Scarlett O'Hara. Fonda is probably the best of the main cast (a sequel with Fonda came out the next year, The Return of Frank James). Given the way Jesse is turned into a folk hero, I couldn't help thinking about one of my very favorite movies, Bonnie and Clyde. That film worked hard on the myth ... think of Bonnie's poem ("You know what you done there? You told my story.") ... Jesse James is more matter-of-fact about it. It's also less stylish overall, and it doesn't come close to the masterpiece that is Bonnie and Clyde. But I suppose it gets credit for being mentioned in the same light. 7/10.


the fifth karen sisco award: sweet/vicious

[The introduction is largely copied from previous years.]

In 2010, I started a new tradition. I called it the Karen Sisco Award, named after the short-lived television series starring Carla Gugino. Sisco was the character played by Jennifer Lopez in the film Out of Sight, and the series, which also featured Robert Forster and Bill Duke, was on ABC. They made ten episodes, showed seven, and cancelled it. Gugino was ridiculously hot (no surprise there) and the series, based on an Elmore Leonard character, got about as close as anyone did to Leonard’s style until Justified came along.

When I posted an R.I.P. to the show, my son commented, “Every year there is a new favorite Daddy-O show that gets cancelled mid-season. … You have some sort of fixation with doomed shows, did it start with Crime Story or does it come from your upbringing?” (In fairness, Crime Story lasted two seasons.) The Karen Sisco Award exists to honor those doomed shows.

Previous winners were Terriers (2010), Lights Out (2011), Luck (2012), and after a break of a few years, Agent Carter (2016).

This year's winner actually started in November of 2016, but it finished in January of 2017, so I think it counts. I'm talking about Sweet/Vicious, about which I wrote:

Sweet/Vicious is easy to summarize, for anyone who is thinking of checking it out. The problem is, the summary tells you nothing about the execution. (This can be said of many works, of course.) I haven’t recommended it to anyone, even though it just finished its first season, if for no other reason than it is built around the kinds of triggers that many people will understandably avoid. For the set-up of Sweet/Vicious is that a rape survivor and her friend become vigilantes, fighting against those who assault women.

And it’s not always a serious drama....

Sweet/Vicious is an audacious show about a topic that is hidden far too often. It is never exploitative. And while it always returns to the story of survivors, it isn’t particularly preachy.

It got terrible ratings, and was cancelled by MTV (which is where it aired). So one season is all we'll get. And Sweet/Vicious was just finding its voice. The great Mo Ryan had a lot to say about the cancellation, and I'm going to quote her a bit here.

Sweet/Vicious” set itself apart in a very crowded TV landscape, and though it was barely promoted, it found a small but loyal audience. I grind my teeth at the thought of what kind of impression it could have made, and what kind of audience could have been built up, had MTV allocated even a little more money and promotional resources to it.

One of the greatest joys of this job is coming across something around the margins that does something cool, unique, or entertaining. When a show you’ve never heard of does all of those things, it’s like getting a jolt of joy straight to the nervous system. You start watching a pilot, and a delightful feeling creeps over you: “Oh, this is good! Who made this? What is this? I want more!” 

“Sweet/Vicious” was one of those shows. It wasn’t just smart, funny and able to craft engaging stories on a very low budget. It wasn’t just an excellent vehicle for its talented stars, Eliza Bennett and Taylor Dearden. It was about something....

And, perhaps to the point of the Karen Sisco Award:

Sweet/Vicious,” handled in the right way, could have become a steady performer for the network, not to mention a media darling.... 

Regardless of whether you agree about the flood of questionable renewals, the fact is, it’s all too easy for shows, new or old, to get lost in the shuffle. But some shows that already made their mark deserve more life. Especially if they were just getting started. 

“Sweet/Vicious” was a gem. Some savvy executive should recognize that, and do something sweet — and smart.

Like many of the previous winners of this award, Sweet/Vicious was barely recognized during its run. Terriers still has fans, and it turns up on streaming services on occasion, and while Lights Out remains little-known, star Holt McCallany is on people's minds after his co-starring role in Mindhunter. And, of course, Peggy Carter and Hayley Atwell still make cameo appearances in the Marvel world.

But I don't think Sweet/Vicious will be remembered, even as much as something like Lights Out. And that is especially sad because, as much as anything, Sweet/Vicious was a victim of bad timing. If it started in November of this year, it would be talked about all over social media. There would be arguments about whether its approach to vigilante justice was the right message for the #MeToo movement. But it would not be ignored. And I wouldn't be writing about it now as the winner of an award no one wants: a good show that was cancelled too soon.

The idea behind the Karen Sisco Award is to draw attention to these shows, so that you'll know they are worthy if you come across them down the road on streaming services.

Again, the winners:

  • 2010: Terriers
  • 2011: Lights Out
  • 2012: Luck
  • 2016: Agent Carter
  • 2017: Sweet/Vicious

Here are a few clips from Sweet/Vicious. Trigger warnings may apply.





uncle boonmee who can recall his past lives (apichatpong weerasethakul, 2010)

First, I am informed that Weerasethakul asks English speakers to call him "Joe". I'm going to take him up on that here, because I'd rather type three letters.

The IMDB entry for this film from Thailand offers the following anecdote. "Audience members at the Cannes Film Festival are notorious for their visceral reactions to films. Booing is commonplace as are walkouts. People started walking out of this film after the first 6 minutes."

I know some people react quickly to horrible violence on the screen, but there is virtually no violence in Uncle Boonmee. It is admittedly very slow moving. I can imagine some people starting Uncle Boonmee and realizing halfway through that it isn't their kind of movie and turning it off. But six minutes? That's a pretty extreme reaction. I had no problem making it through the movie, and I'm not always a fan of slow cinema, but if you are completely averse to this kind of movie and wonder if Uncle Boonmee is for you, just remember some people gave up after SIX MINUTES.

It's a much better movie than this suggests, but I just can't resist the anecdote.

Uncle Boonmee is structured using "six reels", each of which uses a different style. Honestly, if you fancy yourself a film scholar, you would probably find Uncle Boonmee endlessly fascinating. I tend towards narrative, and there is little traditional narrative here. Uncle Boonmee is dying, and as he reflects on his life, various people (now dead) from his past come to visit. Everyone treats this as ordinary and matter-of-fact. At times, the film is gently amusing ... in fact, "gentle" describes a lot of what we see. For myself, Uncle Boonmee is like entering into a world I know nothing about, which is a good kind of challenging. I never completely understood what I was seeing, but I wasn't quite lost, if that makes sense.

I'm not ready to run out and watch other Joe movies (although Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century are both on my endless list of Movies to Watch). But Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives was a gentle introduction to Joe's film world. #410 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, and #18 on the 21st-century list.  7/10.

Here are the first five minutes. If you want to see the "Cannes Sixth Minute", you'll have to watch the film.