Friday, April 18, 2014

The Films of Jim Jarmusch: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch.
Written by: Jim Jarmusch.
Starring: Forest Whitaker (Ghost Dog), John Tormey (Louie), Cliff Gorman (Sonny Valerio), Frank Minucci (Big Angie), Richard Portnow (Handsome Frank), Tricia Vessey (Louise Vargo), Henry Silva (Ray Vargo), Victor Argo (Vinny), Isaach De Bankolé  (Raymond), Camille Winbush (Pearline), Gary Farmer (Nobody).

In his review of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Roger Ebert wonders why more people didn’t point out what he sees as the fact that the main character in the film is insane. Ebert’s reasoning is solid. Forest Whitaker plays the title character in modern day Jersey City as a mob assassin who lives by the ancient rules of the samurai and communicates only by carrier pigeons. That’s not normal behavior – and in fact one of the film’s funniest scenes has Louie (John Tormey), the mobster Ghost Dog works for, try and explain to his bosses what Ghost Dog’s name is and why he can’t just call him up *”Did you just say he contacts you through a bird?”). Perhaps the reason why no one mentions that Ghost Dog is insane, despite all the evidence that he is, is because he’s seems so calm, so sure of himself at every moment in the film. He lives by a code in a world where no one else does – and is willing to do anything for that code. He lives the way he does because it makes sense to him in a world where nothing else does. It gives him something to hold onto.

Like all of Jim Jarmusch’s films, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is strange from the beginning – it has to rank among the strangest films about a hit man ever made. Whitaker’s Ghost Dog gets himself in trouble – through no fault of his own – when he completes the first job we see him given in the movie. He is to take out a mobster who is sleeping with the boss’ daughter, Louise (Tricia Vessey). He does so, but is seen by the Louise, mean her father decides he needs to take out Ghost Dog – and perhaps Louie, the man Ghost Dog works for as well. Ghost Dog is loyal to Louie – he is his retainer, and Ghost Dog treats him as a samurai would his master – he is willing to do anything for him. With both his own life, and Louie’s, on the line, Ghost Dog decides to do the only thing he can – and kill every other mobster around. These scenes of harsh, brutal violence are contrasted against some gentler ones of Ghost Dog interacting with his best friend, Raymond (Jarmusch regular Isaach De Bankolé), who speaks no English, and because Ghost Dog doesn’t speak French, neither knows what the other one is saying – and a young girl named Pearline (Camille Wimbush). At times, there almost seem to be two movies going on – with only Whitaker’s eerily calm Ghost Dog connecting them.

Like his other movies, Ghost Dog is basically about an outsider – someone who doesn’t fit in with the world around him, but doesn’t really want to either. This is one of Whitaker’s best performances – the one that springs immediately to mind whenever I think of the actor. He may have won an Oscar for going over the top nasty (brilliantly) in The Last King of Scotland (2006) – but Whitaker has mainly made a career out of playing men who are somewhat gentler than his hulking appearance suggests. His Ghost Dog is willing, and able, to kill without feeling or remorse – but neither does he take pleasure in it. He is spookily calm at every point in the movie, and this makes him a strange character to center a movie around – but a perfect one for Jarmusch.

Jarmusch has fun in other areas of Ghost Dog as well – the gangsters in the film aren’t so much realistic as they are parodies of movie gangsters, and Jarmusch has fun with them as they discuss hip hop, or in one scene dance around to rap music, before Ghost Dog’s most inventive kill. Jarmusch also throws in the strange view of a man building a boat on his rooftop – how’s he going to get it down, no one knows – but it shows that at least Ghost Dog isn’t the only insane person living in this world. Gary Farmer shows up here again for one scene – once again playing a character named Nobody, and like in Dead Man, delivers the perfect line “Stupid fucking white man”. For all I know, he’s the same character as in Dead Man – more than a century later, but still going strong.

Ghost Dog is a little slighter than much of Jarmusch’s work. Like always, he’s not so much interested in plot as he is in character and mood – but at nearly two hours, the film certainly drags at points, and starts to feel repetitive. But he’s clearly having fun playing around in genre film. It isn’t the genre twisting masterwork of Dead Man, but it’s an odd, strangely hypnotic film. I’ve never seen anything quite like before – and I doubt I’ll see anything like it again anytime soon.

The Films of the Coen Brothers: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000)
Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Written by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen based on The Odyssey by Homer.
Starring: George Clooney (Ulysses Everett McGill), John Turturro (Pete Hogwallop), Tim Blake Nelson (Delmar O'Donnell), John Goodman (Big Dan Teague), Holly Hunter (Penny), Chris Thomas King (Tommy Johnson), Charles Durning (Pappy O'Daniel), Del Pentecost (Junior O'Daniel), Michael Badalucco (George Nelson), Wayne Duvall (Homer Stokes), Ed Gale (The Little Man), Ray McKinnon (Vernon T. Waldrip), Stephen Root (Radio Station Man), Mia Tate (Siren), Musetta Vander (Siren), Christy Taylor (Siren).

Is it at all odd that I love O Brother, Where Art Thou given the fact that out of all the Coen brothers’ films, the one it most resembles is Raising Arizona – which is the one Coen brother film I really do not like? I don’t think so. While both films have a strange comic energy, that borderlines on cartoonish at times, I feel it’s more sustained this time out. The brothers also take their goofy story less seriously this time – it doesn’t really attempt the same level of serious emotion that Raising Arizona tried to, and ultimately failed to, pull off. It also has a terrific ensemble cast that doesn’t hit a false note. And perhaps most importantly, George Clooney is brilliant in the lead role as Ulysses Everett McGill, while I never thought Nicolas Cage settled into his role in Raising Arizona. Oh – and the film is also hilarious pretty much from beginning to end. That helps.

The film takes place in the South during the great depression – and begins with McGill along with Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro) and Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) escaping from a chain gang. McGill has promised the two other prisoners he is shackled to a portion of the money he stole from a bank before being sent to jail - $1.2 million. If that seems to be a little too good to be true to you – well, you’re probably a whole hell of a lot smarter than Pete and Delmar who McGill, correctly, characterizes as “dumber than a sack of hammers”. The real reason McGill wants to escape is that his ex-wife Penny (Holly Hunter) has informed him that she is marrying another man – and taking their seven daughters with her. That don’t sit right with McGill – he’s the damn paterfamilias after all.

The Coens say they based the film on Homer’s The Odyssey, but also admit that they’ve never actually read it. That’s okay – I haven’t read it either, and chances are neither have you. We all know the basic story – or stories, I guess would be more accurate. Odysseus (or Ulysses) spends 10 years trying to get home to his wife, Penelope, after the fall of Troy. Like that other Ulysses, Clooney’s Ulysses has to deal with one strange event after another – one more set of people, some kind, some cruel before he can finally reach home. Along the way, they’ll meet a blind prophet, a one eyed bible salesman (John Goodman – great as always), George “Don’t Call Me Baby Face” Nelson (Michael Badalucco), Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), a black guitar player who sold his soul to the devil, the beleaguered Governor of the State (Charles Durning) and his competition in the upcoming election (Wayne Duvall). They also get distracted by a mass baptism, three sirens drawing them in with their song, and finally a KKK rally, which some manages to be ridiculous and scary at the same time – full of choreographed movement, giant burning crosses, strange chants and finally the bizarre revelation that the “colored guard in colored”. Oh, and the make some money by singing into a can.

The film looks great from start to finish – not least because of Roger Deakins brilliant cinematography that makes the South look dry, dirty, dusty and somewhat burnt – the destaturated color palette being one of the most distinctive used in a Coen movie (it was one of the first movies to use digital color correction – a special feature on the DVD shows just how different the color palette of the final film was from what was shot). The production design doesn’t really recreate the South of the 1930s – but the South as seen in movies of the 1930s. The title comes from Preston Sturges’ brilliant 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels where a producer of lame comedies dreams of making an important project entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou. The Coens are obviously having fun with that – there is nothing overly important about this film – but they are also clearly admirers of Sturges – as evidenced in the dialogue in this film, much of which you could see belonging to Sturges film. The Coens do add some modern twists to the movie that would not have been done back in the 1930s and ‘40s – in particular in the way the brothers deal with race, which is subtle yet unmistakable throughout the film. The film doesn’t look through or past the black men who are so often in the background of this movie – but right at time – their pain in unmistakable, even amidst all the comic chaos that surrounds them.

None of this would work however if it weren’t for the performances – which is what I think ultimately sunk Raising Arizona for me. Holly Hunter returns from that film – and that’s appropriate because I think her Penny here may well be relative of Ed in that previous film – as both have a very direct way of putting the men in their lives in place (As a reminder, I liked Hunter in Raising Arizona –one of the few things I thought worked perfectly). It goes without saying that Goodman is great as Big Dan Teague, an untrustworthy bible salesman with one eye (his appearance at the Klan rally may be the film’s best visual gag). Tim Blake Nelson, then a relative newcomer is hilarious as the dimwitted Delmar – Nelson has had to play a few dumb rednecks in his day, but none as gloriously dumb as Delmar. John Turturro seems to be relishing what will probably be the only time he is ever cast as a Southern hillbilly. Best of all is Clooney, who plays McGill as part Clark Gable with his rugged handsomeness, and part Cary Grant with his ability to handle ridiculously convoluted comedic dialogue. I have no idea what the Coens saw Clooney in before this film that suggested he would be great in a part this broadly comedic, but whatever their reasons, it worked out.

Finally, there is the music – a glorious concoction of classic and all but forgotten Bluegrass songs, arranged by T-Bone Burnett. The soundtrack became an even bigger hit than the movie was at the time (which is moderate at best for the film – but you couldn’t go anywhere and not hear the music). It fits in nicely with the rest of the film – nostalgic, but not overly so.

The Coens have made better films that O Brother, Where Art Thou – deeper films with more resonance and even funnier films (although for most directors, O Brother Where Art Thou would easily be their funniest). The film is very much a part of the Coen world – it loves McGill, but still delights in punishing him for his sins throughout the film – although unlike most Coen protagonists, they do pretty much allow him complete redemption by the end (then again, this is one of their comedies, and they often do that here). But in its own, relatively minor (perhaps) way, O Brother, Where Art Thou is still a pretty much perfect comedy – one that remains endlessly rewatchable, and gets me laughing every time.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Films of Jim Jarmusch: Year of the Horse (1997)

Year of the Horse (1997)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch.
Featuring: Neil Young and Crazy Horse.

In 1995-96, Jim Jarmusch and Neil Young collaborated on two films together. The first was Jarmusch’s Dead Man – one of his best films, and features a haunting, guitar driven score by Young. The second was Year of the Horse, a documentary about Young and his long time band Crazy Horse – which is perhaps the worst film Jarmusch has ever directed. Jarmusch had never made a documentary before, and it shows in his interviewing skills – as he gets almost nothing of any value from Young, the other members of the band or anyone else he interviews. He even keeps not one, not two, but three different instances of the guitar player basically saying that no outsider can possibly come in and document what 30 years together is really like. By the third time he says it, it feels like a confession on Jarmusch’s part – he really doesn’t capture what being together that long is like.

The movie is made up mostly of concert footage shot in 1996 – along with new interviews – shot, it appears, in someone’s dingy laundry room for reasons I do not understand as well as footage from previous tours in 1986 and 1976. The old footage, presented without context, really doesn’t add anything to the movie – except to show you how much Young and everyone else has aged over the 20 years the footage spans. The one exception could be a scene where Young is angry because the other members screwed up the arrangement on stage that night (we do not see footage of that, of course) – which hints at the more complex relationship Young and this band actually has, that Jarmusch was unable to capture. There is a reason that Young continues to come back and record and tour with Crazy Horse  -it seems like it recharges their batteries. They have a sound that is described throughout the movie as “raw” and their concerts basically look like jam sessions. Yet there is also a reason why Young often records his best music with others and not Crazy Horse – and why he has at times started recording with Crazy Horse, and then re-recorded everything with other musicians. The members of Crazy Horse admit there are a lot better musicians out there then they are – and Young knows it as well. You’ll hear a lot of songs in Year of the Horse – and none of them are among the best of Young’s long career. Young can go on all he likes about his while everyone else’s jacket says “Neil Young and Crazy Horse”, while his just says Crazy Horse – but they really are Neil Young and Crazy Horse. The other band members are not on Young’s level – and they all know it. Any bitterness, resentment or anger there may be is left off-screen, which is disappointing.

Basically, the interviews are shallow and superficial. They offer no real insight into what makes this band work as well as they do, or what has kept them together. Either Jarmusch lacked the skills to get the band to be introspective, or else they didn’t want to go there and Jarmusch didn’t push. You aren’t really going to learn much from them.

But this is, more than anything, a concert documentary – so who cares about the interviews as long as the music is great, right? That would be true, except the music in Year of the Horse isn’t all that good. I’m a Neil Young fan – and I loved Jonathan Demme’s Heart of Gold – another Young concert doc from a few years ago. Yet in Year of the Horse, the songs go on forever. Basically the band sings the first verse and the chorus of each song, and then the whole thing quickly devolves into minute after minute of what would charitably described as a “jam session” – that is mainly wordless, with guitar that provide more feedback than anything else. It doesn’t help that Jarmusch decided to shoot on Super 8 (and “Proudly”, the opening credits inform us) – which I suppose was an attempt to make the film look as “raw” as the band – but basically has the effect of making everything look dingy, grimy and dirty – and also hurts the sound quality. I don’t think shooting on any type of film would have saved some of the songs – that drone on and on and on for what seems like forever (I think a few hit 10 minutes) – but it couldn’t possibly have hurt.

Some directors are naturals when they move over the documentary films from a long career in features. Martin Scorsese has been able to make several great docs – and two great concert films as well. Spike Lee has been able to cross that line as well. As Year of the Horse is still the only documentary and concert film on Jarmusch’s resume, the evidence so far suggests he is not one of those directors. Apparently he’s working on a documentary about The Stooges. Hopefully he learned some lessons from Year of the Horse, and that film will be better than this one. But if I learn nothing else from that other than that Iggy Popp’s jacket just said The Stooges, and everyone else’s jacket says Iggy Popp & the Stooges, I’ll be disappointed.

The Films of the Coen Brothers: The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Big Lebowski (1998)
Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen.
Written by: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen.
Starring: Jeff Bridges (Jeffrey Lebowski - The Dude), John Goodman (Walter Sobchak), Julianne Moore (Maude Lebowski), Steve Buscemi (Theodore Donald 'Donny' Kerabatsos), David Huddleston (Jeffrey Lebowski - The Big Lebowski), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Brandt), John Turturro (Jesus Quintana), Sam Elliott (The Stranger), Tara Reid (Bunny Lebowski), Peter Stormare (Nihilist #1, Uli Kunkel / 'Karl Hungus'), Flea (Nihilist #2, Kieffer), David Thewlis (Knox Harrington), Ben Gazzara (Jackie Treehorn), Jon Polito (Da Fino).

The Big Lebowski would easily make my personal list of the 10 funniest films ever made. Like other films that would probably make that list, film somehow manages to be funny every time you see it. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched The Big Lebowski at this point in my life – I’d say, at least 15 – and yet every time I watch it, I cannot help but laugh pretty much from beginning to end. Comedy is subjective of course – my wife watched the first hour of the film and hated it so much she turned it off. So be it – she doesn’t know what she’s missing.

The film is basically like a Raymond Chandler detective story, yet instead of a brilliant Philip Marlowe as our protagonist, we get Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Brides) – an aging hippie in early 1990s Malibu. He is unemployed – and has been for a while. Where he gets his money, I have no idea. He spends his days in a blissful haze of marijuana smoke and the buzz he gets off White Russians. The only place he has to be is the bowling alley. His teammates are Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) – also a relic of the 1960s, but just about the complete opposite of The Dude – a crazed, militaristic Vietnam vet and gun nut, and Donny Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi) – who barely gets to say a word, because The Dude pretty much ignores every he says, and Walter keeps tell him to shut the fuck up. Donny doesn’t care – as long as he’s throws rocks, he’s happy to be in their company.

Then one day two men enter the Dude’s apartment and demand the money. The push his head into the toilet, and tell him that since his wife owes money to Jackie Treehorn that means he owes money to Jackie Treehorn. One of them – who the Dude will refer to as the Chinaman for the rest of the movie – even pees on his rug, which is a shame because it really ties the room together. There is a problem of course – The Dude isn’t married. He figures out that these two must have been looking for the other Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston) – a millionaire philanthropist, with a young trophy wife named Bunny (Tara Reid). The Dude goes to see the other Lebowski in the hopes of being reimbursed for the rug – and thus gets involved in a complicated plot that involves kidnapping, nihilists, a strange performance artist (Julianne Moore) her stranger friends, a bowler named Jesus, pornographers and interpretive dance. Through it all, Sam Elliot – wearing a cowboy hat and perhaps having the best mustache in movie history, acts as our guide and narrator – although sometimes even he loses his train of thought.

The film was not a big hit back in 1998 – grossing only about $17 million in North America. But it has gone on to become one of the biggest cult movies of all time, inspiring annual conventions, a ton of merchandise, and a host of books on how to live like Lebowski and the philosophy of the Dude. Why does the movie touch people like this? Perhaps it’s because the Dude seems so contented throughout the movie – even when things seem to be at their bleakest. Like many Coen protagonists, The Dude spends the film getting tormented – he has his face shoved in a toilet, he gets beat up, he has a coffee cup thrown at his head, he’s drugged more than once, he has his car stolen and trashed, then gets it back only to have it trashed some more and eventually get set on fire, and pretty much everyone he meets thinks he’s an idiot. And yet, The Dude abides. He soldiers on, and finds happiness where he can. I imagine him listening to the monologue by Frances McDormand at the end of Fargo and being in complete agreement. Jeff Bridges is a great actor who has delivered any number of great performances in his career that pretty much started at birth, but to many he’ll always be associated with The Dude. If it’s not his greatest performance – and I would argue that it is – it’s certainly his most iconic one.

Not to be outdone, Coen regular John Goodman delivers a performance of hilarious, crazed intensity as Walter. The Coen’s based his character on writer/director John Milius, and Goodman nails the look and mannerisms of the famed right wing artist. You wouldn’t think that The Dude and Walter would get along so well – they seem like complete opposites politically, but the two never really discuss politics – although the Dude does get exasperated when Walter keeps bringing up Vietnam (my favorite Vietnam related line “This is bowling, not Vietnam, Smoke. There are rules”). The rest of the cast – from Buscemi to Huddleston to a Julianne Moore, with a strange accent, to John Turturro warning everyone “Not to fuck with the Jesus”, to Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lebowski’s sycophant of an assistant, to Ben Gazzara as a pornographer, to Davis Thewlis, in a one scene performance of pure absurd brilliance, are also spot on. The Coens have a way of figuring out the perfect actors for their films, and are seldom wrong.

As we have come to expect from the brothers as well, The Big Lebowski is endlessly visually inventive – from the exaggerated production design on The Big Lebowski’s house, to the bizarre, drug induced dream sequences/musical numbers, to a shot that quite literally looks out from inside a bowling ball, the Coens do not seem to be happy unless they are endlessly trying something new. Their meticulous attention to detail and their control freak ways may seem at odds with a story as loose as the one here – but I think it helps to keep the movie from going too far over the top. For what The Big Lebowski is, it’s pretty much perfect.

The Films of Jim Jarmusch: Dead Man (1995)

Dead Man (1995)
Directed by: Jim Jarmusch.
Written by: Jim Jarmusch.
Starring: Johnny Depp (William Blake), Gary Farmer (Nobody), Lance Henriksen (Cole Wilson), Michael Wincott (Conway Twill), Eugene Byrd (Johnny 'The Kid' Pickett), Crispin Glover (Train Fireman), John Hurt (John Scholfield), Robert Mitchum (John Dickinson), Iggy Pop (Salvatore 'Sally' Jenko), Jared Harris (Benmont Tench), Gabriel Byrne (Charlie Dickinson), Mili Avital (Thel Russell), Jimmie Ray Weeks  (Marvin, Older Marshal), Mark Bringelson (Lee, Younger Marshal), Billy Bob Thornton (Big George Drakoulious), Alfred Molina (Trading Post Missionary).

Dead Man is an odd film. It’s an existential Western that paints a cold, violent, dark picture of the American West, basically concluding that the American West was a brutal place – and perhaps America hasn’t changed much since. The film is almost like a slow descent into hell. It’s a film that takes its time – as all Jarmusch films do – so if you’re not on its wavelength, the film is probably a long, dull slog. But if you are with Jarmusch, than the film is haunting – beautiful and mournful in between the sudden bursts of violence. To some it’s Jarmusch’s masterpiece, to others it’s one of his worst films. I’m more in the former camp than the later.

Johnny Depp stars as William Blake – not the poet - an accountant who is taking a long train ride from the big city of Cleveland way out to the end of line – a little town called Machine, where he has been promised a jump at the Dickinson Metal Works. The train ride that takes up the pre-credits sequence is like the film itself – long, slow, surreal at times, as everyone seems to be staring as Blake as if he’s an alien creature – which in some ways he is. Before he’s even arrived, the Train Fireman (Crispin Glover at his most Crispin Glover-esque) warns him away from Machine. But Blake doesn’t listen. He shows up at the Metal Works, and is told by John Scholfield (John Hurt) that he’s too late – the job has been filled. Blake is laughed at by Scholfield, and the rest of the office workers, but insists on seeing Mr. Dickenson himself. He is played by Robert Mitchum, in his last film role, a big bear of man, smoking a huge cigar, and wielding a shotgun. Blake quickly realizes his journey has been for nothing.

At the local bar he meets Thel Russell (Mili Avital) – a woman who sells paper flowers. Blake is nicer than the rest of the men of Machine – he doesn’t mock her, treat her like a whore, or throw her and her flowers in the mud. He ends up in her hotel room for the right. Early the next morning, Charlie Dickinson (Gabriel Byrne) – son of Mitchum – shows up. He was once Thel’s fiancé, and wants to patch things up. Things quickly go awry; shots are fired leaving Thel and Charlie dead, and Blake with a wound to the chest that should have killed him. He runs off into the wild, where he meets Nobody (Gary Farmer) – a Native who is an outsider even among other Natives, who thinks Blake is the poet – and decides to help him. He needs all the help he can get, because Dickinson has hired three assassins – Cole Wilson (Lance Henrickson), Conway Twill (Michael Wincott) and Johnny “The Kid” Pickett (Eugene Byrd) to track Blake down and kill him. The three aren’t thrilled to be working together, and are just as likely to kill each other as kill Blake.

Given his previous work, Dead Man marked a departure of sorts for Jarmusch – he’s working in a genre film for the first time (there are some hints of genre in Down By Law, but not entirely) – and he remains focused on a single character from beginning to end. Yet the film is still every inch a Jarmusch film. The gorgeous black and white photography by Robby Muller makes this the most visually stunning film of Jarmusch’s career. He still favors long takes though. The framing is a little off-kilter – nothing seems to be in the middle of the frame, giving the film a more surreal look. When the violence comes in the film – and it comes often – it’s quick, brutal and deadly. There are no protracted gun fights in Dead Man – I was reminded of a line in Ed Harris’ Appaloosa when his character was asked why the gunfight was over so quickly and he responds “Because everyone knew how to shoot”. That’s the case here as well – although sometimes, it ends quickly because the characters don’t really play fair with each other – killing them when they are not expecting it.

Johnny Depp’s performance is one of his finest. This was the period of his career before he became a huge, bankable movie star and was interested in doing odd, quirky little films and didn’t seem to care if they would make him a movie star. Now, he does almost nothing but huge blockbusters, and tries very hard to be odd and quirky in them all – but it’s wearing a little thin, as all of them start blending together as basically, they are all variations on Captain Jack Sparrow (tellingly, his last great performance was in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies – 2009 - where he mainly played it straight). Here, he’s got a baby face, and seems almost hopelessly naïve when the film begins – he doesn’t belong in Machine, which is the most alien city in Jarmusch’s filmography full of alien cities. He is a stranger in a world he doesn’t understand. Gradually, his William Blake learns the rules of land he inhabits, and becomes the vicious man he needs to become to survive. But by then it’s already too late. You can take the title of the movie a number of ways, but basically, I think Blake is dead pretty much the moment he’s shot by Charlie – he just doesn’t realize it yet. He goes from a man who comically takes shot after shot at Charlie before getting lucky and hits him, into being a crack shot with his gun. Nobody views him with a kind of pity as the pair makes their way West to the Pacific Ocean. Farmer is Depp’s match in terms of weirdness – his talk is profane, yet witty and funny – and he seems to be smiling to himself often – as if he’s in on a joke that Blake hasn’t gotten yet.

Jarmusch surrounds these two with the oddest assortment of characters imaginable – from Crispin Glover looking and sounding like something released from the bowels of hell, to John Hurt’s laughing maniac, to Mitchum who is great, as always, by just being Mitchum – to the trio of hit men on their trial. The most brutal of the three is Lance Henrickson, who doesn’t say much, but doesn’t have to – when the rumor about you is that you raped, killed and ate both of your parents, you don’t need to say much to look menacing. Michael Wincott, as one of the other assassins, almost never shuts up putting him at odds with Henrickson from the start. Then there’s the odd scene with three fur trappers – Jared Harris, Billy Bob Thornton and Iggy Pop, in a frontier dress, which is as odd as it sounds.

The most remarkable thing about Dead Man is how it maintains its surreal tone throughout the film. The cinematography helps, as does Neil Young’s guitar and feedback heavy score. As the film winds down, it becomes more wordless, moves a little bit slower than a pace that to many was already too slow – yet remains utterly transfixing. This is Jarmusch at his best. He offers a bleak worldview, for the first time not tempered with humor, and delivers a portrait of the West we haven’t really seen before or since. It’s one of the few Western post-Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) that really gives us something different. When Depp discovers a gun under Thel’s pillow he asks her what she has it for. “This is America” she tells him as if it explains everything. To Jarmusch, it does. His Dead Man paints a bleak, brutal, violent picture of the American West – and it’s one of his best films.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Movie Review: Jodorowsky's Dune

Jodorowsky’s Dune
Directed by: Frank Pavich.
Featuring: Alejandro Jodorowsky, Michel Seydoux, H.R. Giger, Chris Foss, Brontis Jodorowsky, Richard Stanley, Devin Faraci, Drew McWeeny, Gary Kurtz, Nicolas Winding Refn, Diane O'Bannon, Christian Vander, Jean-Pierre Vignau, Amanda Lear.

Mexican director Alejandro Jodorowsky is one of those mad geniuses of cinema that the world needs more of. Like Werner Herzog or David Lynch, his films are not quite like anyone else’s. In the early 1970s, he had a huge cult hit with El Topo – a strange, violent Western where he casts himself in the title role – and utters the line “I am God!” That film was extremely strange – it takes more than one twist throughout its runtime, and ends up with a strange, underground cult. He followed that film up with The Holy Mountain in 1973, which if anything, made El Topo look normal. His emergence came at perhaps the only time in cinema history where you could make films like he did, and still find a rather sizable audience. After The Holy Mountain, he set his sights on adapting Frank Herbert’s Dune. He envisioned a film that would replicate the effects on LSD – and would alter the minds of the entire world that saw it. He assembled a strange cast – including David Carradine, Orson Welles and Salvador Dali – some great artists and together they created a huge book – essentially a detailed storyboard – which showed exactly what he wanted to do. All he needed was the money to make his epic vision come to life. He never got it.

Jodorowsky’s Dune is a documentary where Jodorowsky, and his surviving collaborators, essentially explain what they wanted to do – and ultimately why they didn’t succeed in getting the film made. The film is partisan in the extreme to Jodorowsky’s version of events – it doesn’t really challenge him on anything, although I suspect that I’m not the only audience member who has his doubts about just how truthful his version of events are – I suspect at the very least Jodorowsky is exaggerating some things (if you believe his version of events for example, you have to believe that he just happened to run into most of his collaborators at random – even after he had already decided he needed to track him down). There are a lot of grand claims made throughout Jodorowsky’s Dune – about how the unmade influenced everything from Star Wars to Indiana Jones to Contact to The Terminator to Alien – some of which seems to be genuine (several people who worked with Jodorowsky on Dune ended up working with Ridley Scott on Alien – and seem to have taken some of the visuals for his film to Scott’s), some of them are a little bit of a stretch (showing a story board of a Dune sword fight, compared to a still of a Star Wars light saber battle, which I’m sorry, looks like it could have come from anywhere). Strangely, the grandest claims come not from Jodorowsky himself, but from director Nicholas Winding Refn, a friend and fan, who claims that if Dune had gotten made before Star Wars, the whole blockbuster ethos may have been changed forever (not likely) and that he believes that the studios didn’t make the film because they were afraid of what it would do to their minds (again not likely – they were scared all right, but scared they would wind up with a costly bomb). The one voice of reason may come from an executive, who (reasonably) suggests that perhaps Jodorowsky and his collaborators should have had a better answer ready for the studios when they asked him to make the movie 90 minutes long other than Jodorowsky – who suggested that he was making a work of art, and it would go on for 12 or 20 hours if he needed it to. Realistically speaking, what studio would have financed this film?

Yet, these problems aside, I couldn’t help by admire Jodorowsky and his commitment to his art throughout this film. His Dune was a grand dream – an epic vision unlike anything that has ever been put on screen. Realistically speaking, he should have known it was never really going to get made, but if Jodorowsky lived realistically, than none of his films would exist. He’s a man who goes for broke, and is just crazy and just charismatic enough that he inspires the confidence in everyone around him to go on this crazy ride with him. What we see of the “film” – from the sketches, the art, the music and Jodorowsky’s description if nothing else makes me wish he had of made the film – no matter if it was 12 or 20 hours, it is something I know damn well I would have loved to see.

The film was directed by Frank Pavich, making his feature debut. Given that he has such a crazy subject matter, I wish he had found a more interesting way to tell the story. As it stands, it is a very typical talking heads documentary, interspersed with film clips and shots of the original storyboard. I wish he had taken a page out of Jodorowsky’s book and not played it so safe – make something more ambitious visually – something that would do more justice to Jodorowsky and his forever unseen film. It’s a minor quibble – the film is never less than fascinating but I think if he had taken more chances, it could have been so much more.

In the end, we’ll never know what Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been had it gotten it made. It could have been a hit like Star Wars, a few years before Lucas made his space epic, and spawned countless imitators. It could have been an epic bomb – not unlike Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate – that forever destroyed his career. It could have been a complete and utter failure that inspired the director to move in a different direction – like David Lynch’s Dune, made the following decade, ultimately proved to be. It’s easy to for everyone in the film to claim that Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been a masterpiece – easy because they don’t have the burden of actually having to back up that claim as the film will never exist. But I think they believe it. They believe in Jodorowsky’s vision for the project, and that he had the skill and the crazy genius to pull it off. No matter what it would have turned out to be, I’m sorry the world never got to see it – and has gotten to see so little from Jodorowsky on the screen over his career. The film world needs more crazy, brilliant dreamers like Jodorowsky.

Female Directors and the Bechdel Test

Last week, someone on my Facebook posted a link to another piece about The Bechdel Test – entitled The Bechdel Test and Why Every Movie in Hollywood Needs to Pass It. I didn’t read the article – because I pretty knew what it was going to say. In general, I think the Bechdel Test is fascinating when looking at a large group of movies, but pretty much useless for gauging an individual movie’s merits. There are lots of legitimate reasons why a film may fail the Bechdel Test other than sexism – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

For those who don’t know, The Bechdel Test came about because of a comic strip in the 1980s. The basic rule is that to pass The Bechdel Test a movie must 1) Have Two Female Characters Who 2) Both have a name and 3) have a conversation about something other than a man. It seems like a fairly simply test, and yet you would be surprised how many movies fail this test. When you look at the vast numbers of films that fail the test, you have to conclude that female characters are grossly underrepresented in Hollywood movies. That is undeniable - and is something that needs to change.

What I do not think is that every movie needs to pass the Bechdel Test. There are perfectly good reasons why a film may fail the test. All is Lost last year would fail the test – as it’s just Robert Redford on a boat by himself for two hours  - and he doesn’t even have a name. Gravity would fail the test as well – even though Sandra Bullock is in practically every frame of that film and is a positive female character – because, again, there are only two characters in the movie – and the other is George Clooney.

But even with movies with larger casts, there could be a good reason why the film fails the test. The only film directed by a woman to ever win the Best Picture Oscar – The Hurt Locker by Kathryn Bigelow – who also won the Best Director Oscar for the film – would fail the test. It’s about men at war, and continues Bigelow’s fascination with wounded masculinity that has run through her entire career. A film like the Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis has a male character at the center of every scene – and involved in every conversation in the film – so it’s kind of hard for the film to pass it. The Godfather has a very big cast, but again it focuses on male characters.

I don’t think the problem is movies that focus on male characters – and the fact that they may fail the Bechdel Test. As individual movies, many fail the test because it is about its male characters, and not their female ones - which isn't necessarily sexist. How could Taxi Driver, There Will Be Blood or Citizen Kane be made to pass the test? The answer – they couldn’t. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.

The problem, I think, is that there are far too few movies from the other point of view made. Too few movies focused on female characters first and foremost. And that’s really what Hollywood needs to change – not just throw in a conversation between two women in every production, but rather make whole movies about female characters. To do that, I think it’s clear we need more female directors and more female writers working – and making movies that matter to them – whether they pass the Bechdel Test or not.

I got to thinking about female directors this past weekend because I re-watched Mary Harron’s American Psycho (I’ll write a review later this week) for the first time in years over the weekend because it will be this week’s Movie of the Week on the great website The Dissolve. (American Psycho, by the way, would also flunk the Bechdel Test, as it focuses on Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in every scene). But the movie is also quite clearly from a female point of view, and not the male one of Brett Easton Ellis’ book – and I think the movie is richer for that perspective. American Psycho may not have set box office records when it was released in 2000 – but it’s become a sizable cult hit. It’s even, apparently, spawned a stage musical and a possible upcoming TV show. The movie was also highly acclaimed (albeit controversial) when it came out.

But Harron’s career never really took off, even when the popularity of her movie did. It took her five years to make a follow-up film – the very good The Notorious Bettie Page – and another six years to follow that one up (the not very good The Moth Diaries). In between, she’s kept busy directing TV episodes, a few shorts, and most recently – in 2013 – a made for TV movie about Anna Nicole Smith.

If Harron was an isolated case, we could dismiss it. But she’s not. Kimberly Pierce directed the hugely acclaimed (and Oscar winning) Boys Don’t Cry in 1999 – and only two films since. Patty Jenkins directed the Oscar winning Monster in 2004 – and hasn’t made a theatrical film since. Nicole Kassell wrote and directed the excellent The Woodsman in 2004 – and only one film since. Later this year, Debra Granik will release her first film since the Oscar nominated Winter’s Bone in 2010 – and it’s a documentary. Lisa Cholodenko has been slightly busier, but her follow-up project to her Oscar nominated 2010 film The Kids Are All Right is a TV miniseries (it’s for HBO, and based on a Pulitzer Prize winning book, but still). Kasi Lemmons made the terrific Eve’s Bayou back in 1997 – and only three films since. Karyn Kusama made Girlfight back in 2000 – and only two films since. Rebecca Miller routinely has four or five years gaps in her directing career. Jill Sprecher has only made one film since her acclaimed 2001 film 13 Conversations About One Thing. Julie Taymor may be forever marred by the taint of the failure of the Spider-Man musical on Broadway – despite being an extremely gifted director she has no upcoming projects since 2010’s The Tempest. Lynne Ramsay may be my favorite female director currently working – and she took 9 years to follow-up Movern Callar with We Need to Talk About Kevin – and when she backed out of her last film at the last minute, she got heavily criticized in the media with language that would never be applied to a male director who did the same thing (i.e. hysterical). Andrea Arnold was working at a good clip – with films in 2006, 2009 and 2011 – but nothing since. Jane Campion became only the second female director nominated for an Oscar in 1993 – and has only made four theatrical films in the last 21 years, to go along with a highly acclaimed TV miniseries. Bigelow herself had a six year gap between K-19: The Widowmaker and The Hurt Locker – and had fallen out of fashion in between – so much so that when I saw The Hurt Locker at TIFF more than a year before it won the Best Picture Oscar, it had no distribution deal in place.

Perhaps some of these directors just work slowly and that is what has held up their next films. And the film landscape has changed dramatically over the past decade – making it harder to make any film that isn’t a blockbuster, which helps to explain it as well. And there are some female directors who work steadily – Sofia Coppola jumps to mind, as does Sarah Polley and Nicole Holofcener (although she too does TV work in between her features). Still I cannot but think that some of these women have had their career stalled because studio executives, for whatever reason, do not want to make a lot of movies about women.

I don’t really see a problem with male filmmakers making films that are about male characters – just like I don’t think there’s anything wrong with African American filmmakers making movies about African American characters. It makes a certain degree of sense – filmmakers explore areas they are interested in, and have some experience with. This means if we want more quality films about female characters, then we need more films made by female filmmakers.

So instead of complaining about the number of films that fail The Bechdel Test let’s concentrate our efforts on getting Hollywood to fund more films by female filmmakers. That way, the number of films that pass the Bechdel Test will increase – which is good – but we’ll also get more meaningful films made about female characters. Isn’t that much more important than ensuring Scarlett Johansson and Colbie Smulders ask about each other’s weekend in the next Avengers movie just so it can pass the Bechdel Test? I think so.