Tag: jim jarmusch

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai


Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★

A mercenary named Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is sent by his boss, Louie (John Tormey), who once saved his life in an alley, to kill Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow) because he is sexually involved with the daughter of a head mobster. The problem is, everyone had assumed that the girl, Louise (Tricia Vassey), was not going to be with Handsome Frank at the time of the murder. She witnesses the cold-blooded killing and Mr. Vargo (Henry Silva) is livid. The head mobster demands Louie to give up the man he sent to do perform the job or risk being killed himself.

“Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai,” written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, combines two sub-genres found in the opposite spectrum: gangster pictures and samurai film. What is created is an original and inspired product about what it means to be a killer but a man of honor, a recluse who is capable of connecting with others in unexpected ways.

It can be argued that the material is influenced by Quentin Tarantino’s work in that the writer-director is not afraid to allow individual scenes to run longer than they should. This is best captured during the scene when Louie is summoned by his superiors to discuss his source’s mistake and why he has to be neutralized. Louie sits on one side of the table, nervous but trying not to show it, and the other three do not even crack a smile. It starts off scary, then awkward, and, finally, sort of amusing. The mobsters think Ghost Dog’s name is inspired by rappers on television and the radio.

And then there are scenes that one might think should not be in the movie at all. After all, it is supposed to be about the hunt for the title character and, eventually, his choice on whether to fight back against those who have pushed him into a corner.

Ghost Dog meeting his best friend (Isaach De Bankolé), an ice cream man who speaks only French and does not understand English (nor does Ghost Dog understand a word of French), and a little girl named Pearline (Camille Winbush) allows us to get a feel and explore the hidden depths and alleys of a complicated character. Especially touching is his relationship with Pearline. As avid readers, they talk about and recommend each other books. Through this common interest, they are able to understand each other even though they come from very different age groups. He does not talk down to her.

I appreciated that the material chooses not to put the child in danger for the sake of getting a reaction out of Ghost Dog and the audience. Under more typical hands, she would have been kidnapped by the gangsters eventually and he would have had to rescue her. Instead, Pearline talking about the books stored in her lunchbox is enough to establish how much the main character values his relationship with her. Like the great samurai movies, it understands the art of restraint.

The violence, coupled with a lack of score or soundtrack, is suspenseful and efficient. Even though our protagonist is up against older gentlemen, there is danger because we get a sense that the men in suits know exactly what they are doing. I flinched every time a gun silencer exhales and the bullet punctures the target’s forehead. It shows violence for what it is.

Night on Earth


Night on Earth (1991)
★★ / ★★★★

When I take a taxi, I make sure to communicate in some way that I am open for conversation. Cab drivers interact with all sorts of people and, in my experience, they almost always have an interesting story to tell. That is why the premise of “Night on Earth,” written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, captured my interest immediately: It is composed of five vignettes that take place at the same time in five different countries—all surrounding a taxi driver’s experience with a specific type of passenger.

It is most unfortunate, however, that its pair of aces is shown early on which results in a highly uneven package. The first and second vignettes are clearly the standouts because the energy and sense of humor are able to form a synergy. We feel that the interactions are genuine so the amusement that results from the interactions are natural. The other three—the Parisian story being the most palatable—are supposed to be funny but they are not. Forced just about every step of the way, especially that one that takes place in Rome, I sat there wondering when the unpleasant experience will be finished.

In the first vignette that takes place in Los Angeles, Winona Ryder plays a taxi driver named Corky whose dream is to become a mechanic like her elder brothers. Corky picks up Victoria (Gena Rowlands), a casting agent, from the airport after scouting for young women across the country for a role in a Hollywood movie. Over the course of the ride, it becomes clear to Victoria that the inexperienced actor with the potential to become a superstar is right under her nose. In a span of about twenty five minutes, there is never a dull moment. Ryder and Rowlands cherish every line uttered and allow the silence to settle when necessary so it really feels like we are watching a real taxi ride.

The episode with the most verve involves a taxi driver from Germany named Helmut (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and a New Yorker named YoYo (Giancarlo Esposito) who needs a ride to Brooklyn but no other taxi would stop for him. The first punchline is Helmut not being able to drive. The second is the language barrier. And yet despite the two men being so different on the surface, they find warm commonalities. For instance, they both like to laugh. When they laugh, even though what the source of the laughter is a bad joke or pun, we want to laugh with them nonetheless. There is so much joy in every frame that I did not want the vignette to end so soon.

When attention is turned to Europe, things start to get bizarre. While understandable that the writer-director hopes to deliver something different each time—mood, tone, the type of comedy—the bottom line is they need to work. They do not. While I was able to withstand the conversations between a blind woman (Béatrice Dalle) and a driver whose had a really bad day (Isaach De Bankolé), I found the Roman taxi driver (Roberto Benigni) to be intolerable. I found the whole charade of him talking in a robotic voice to be so annoying. His passenger is a priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and at one point I wondered if the customer would dare to jump out of the vehicle.

I did not know what to make of the final vignette that takes place in Helsinki. Although it is nicely acted by Matti Pellonpää, who plays the driver, the sudden turn toward straight-faced drama feels completely out of place. Eventually, I felt bad for every person in that cab. I kept looking for the irony or punchline but found none. Aside from its conceit, what other quality tethers it to the previous stories?

“Night on Earth” is an unbalanced picture with some good writing and performances. Clearly, its strength is an ear for American dialogue in an urban area. I wondered how much stronger it would have been given that it had focused instead on Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Detroit, and New Orleans. And then perhaps a five- to ten-minute intermission that takes place in a small town in the middle of America.

Only Lovers Left Alive


Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

Currently living in Tangier, Eve (Tilda Swinton) decides to pay Adam (Tom Hiddleston) a visit in Detroit given his increasing depression. Its source: once a wonderful world quickly being reduced to a wasteland of mainstream-mindedness and self-imposed limitation resulting in humanity’s failure to progress. Eve hopes that her presence will help her fellow vampire to climb out of the rut, but the eventual arrival of Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s sister, threatens to lodge him deeper into his crippling frustrations.

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, “Only Lovers Left Alive” rests on its mood and atmosphere to tell a relatively forgettable story of two lovers who have lived together for centuries and are now questioning, in their own ways, if their everlasting lives, given that they choose to sustain it, is still worth continuing. Its languid pacing gives plenty of room for thought but it is certainly not the kind of picture that offers any kind of excitement despite its blood-drinking—preferably from blood donations—protagonists.

In a way, the slow as molasses pacing is appropriate. Since Adam and Eve are able to live for eternity and have been alive—if such a word is appropriate—for hundreds of years, time for them is to be relished. The film concerns itself with the details of its characters’ lives. Looking at the state of their homes, we can tell immediately that they admire art and music, like to read books, and value antiques. We get a taste of their personalities through the clothes they wear and how they are worn. We get an idea of what they like to do by looking at materials left on tables, chairs, and beds.

Casting Swinton and Hiddleston works for the movie’s advantage. These great performers are able to create something from pretty much close to nothing. Imagine if actors of lesser caliber were cast instead. Gone are the subtleties in facial expressions, how their limbs are placed and hung just right to evoke both menace and elegance, the control of movement from one point to another which communicates that they may look human on the outside but inside they are not. Both conjure up a mythical presence about them.

For instance, one of the more memorable shots is Swinton’s nostrils flaring just so when Eve, on her way to the City of Champions, notices a man’s finger dripping with blood. Just imagine: Creating tension from a simple millisecond movement of the nostrils? Only seasoned or naturally gifted thespians are able to pull that off without looking silly.

There is talk of “contaminated” blood which forces vampires, at least the very few we meet, to withhold from drinking any red at the most convenient opportunity. Is contamination referring to disease or drugs? There may be some evidence that it is the latter given one remark about a character spending too much time in underground clubs. Has the contamination gotten so bad that the vampire community is under a threat of extinction?

“Only Lovers Left Alive,” not without a sense of humor, gives audiences time to wonder what one might decide to do if one were given a chance to live forever. I would like to say something typical like “travel the world” or something of that sort. But I propose to take on a more challenging prospect: To watch every movie that has ever been released around the world… including those that are believed to have been destroyed. Places to visit are limited but movies are made and released on a daily basis.

Broken Flowers


Broken Flowers (2005)
★★ / ★★★★

It all started with a pink letter from an old flame with a message written in red that Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is a father of a nineteen-year-old boy. Don, having been dumped by his most recent girlfriend (Julie Delpy), is serious about finding the mother of his son so he makes a list of his former lovers and visits them across America. I liked the premise of the film but the execution was a bit weak for me. I thought the set-up of the story went for too long: the scenes with Jeffrey Wright as Don’s friend who’s enthusiastic about everything may be amusing once in a while but most of their scenes together did not really contribute to the big picture. When Murray finally met the various women in his life (Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton), the picture only spent about five minutes for the characters to interact. Five minutes would have worked with a more efficient director or writing but this film needed an extra ten or fifteen minutes with each women. It simply wasn’t enough and was somewhat unforgivable because I thought that the movie was supposed to be about a man who realized how much he missed out on these women and why he was now a lonely aging guy with no wife and child. Those intermissions after he met each women which consisted of driving around and sleeping could have instead been used to explore his former relationships and why some of them were very unhappy when they saw him. It was such a shame because the actresses featured are very talented and they really could’ve elevated this film to a new level. Instead, I felt that it was ashamed to explore the underlying emotions and would rather take the route of dry comedy with too many coincidences and potential explanations. Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, if it weren’t for Murray’s performance, I would’ve been more critical of this film because it was borderline pretentious about the journey of a lonely man. Those little character quirks such as the lead character’s desperation to find anything pink that might give him a clue to who was the one who sent him the letter took me out of the experience. A similar storyline reminded me of Adam Brooks’ “Definitely, Maybe” only that picture was a lot more fun to watch because it had small payoffs throughout even though it was a more typical Hollywood fare. I say see it for Murray because he really does nail characters who says a thousand words with silence and glances. If only the material was able to match his talent.