This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2014.
Thursday, December 31, 2020
Wednesday, December 23, 2020
This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2013.
Saturday, December 19, 2020
This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2011.
Marc Singer's documentary about homeless people living in the subway tunnels under New York City, Dark Days, was released at the turn of the new century. There is no hard sell or high-concept pitch for this one. Singer opens the lid on an entire community living below the streets of the Big Apple. Some of the folks went underground in the 1970s and had yet to move their lives back up top when the film crew went down into the blackness. Living in a state of perpetual night, these tunnel dwellers learn to cope with their surroundings, building homes out of scrap and finding ways to get along. Some of them are on drugs, some are clean, and none of them could have predicted they would end up here. Dark Days follows a select handful, getting a sense of their day-to-day, digging a little into their past, and in general acting as a passive observer, giving the participants a clean platform to express themselves.
Friday, November 20, 2020
Is there a more elegant genre mash-up than Jim Jarmusch’s turn-of-the-century film Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai? It’s more than just a marriage of mob and samurai movies, it’s an urban drama about a neighborhood, touching on both race and class in its depictions of Blacks and Italians. And on top of that, it embraces hip-hop, with RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan both providing a groundbreaking score and showing up in a cameo.
Even with all that, it’s light as a feather. Ghost Dog has the usual laconic Jarmusch feel, despite scenes of incredibly precise action. For fans of Jean-Pierre Melville, you will see his influence all over this, from the snippets of philosophy taken from the Hagakure warrior’s code to the calculated assassinations Ghost Dog performs. Quiet, patient, and deadly.
The origin story of Ghost Dog is a classic trope. As a young man, Ghost Dog (played with a calm forcefulness by Forest Whitaker) is rescued from a beating by gangster Louie (John Tormey). Over the next several years, Ghost Dog devoted his life to training to be a samurai assassin, shedding material things, living on a rooftop with his pigeons (shades of On the Waterfront). That is the backstory, at least, told in short, repetitious flashbacks. The here and now of it features Ghost Dog acting as Louie’s retainer, serving in the background, killing people Louie needs killed. Ghost Dog has done this twelve times perfectly, but at the start of the film, we see the thirteenth go wrong: when performing a hit on a gangster (Richard Portnow) who is sleeping with the boss’ daughter, the warrior is surprised to find the daughter (Tricia Vessey) is in the room. She was supposed to be gone.
Of course, Ghost Dog does not harm the girl, but the indiscretion raises the ire of her old man (Cliff Gorman), not just because his baby girl was in harm’s way, but also because this leaves a loose end that can trace back to his having ordered a hit on a made man. Thus, Ghost Dog must be removed from the equation.
Things don’t go that way, naturally. Ghost Dog is more than a match for the aging, overweight mafia killers. There is a subtle change of power at work in the New York of Jarmusch. Young Black men work the streets stealthily. Ghost Dog has compatriots everywhere. We never see them in action, but they are acknowledged. They have moved in. The Italian mob, on the other hand, could be seen as aging out: ineffective, comical, caricature. Jarmusch doesn’t lean on it, but it’s there.
What’s also there is the smaller world of misfits that Ghost Dog relaxes in. His best friend is a French ice cream man (Isaach De Bankolé) who plays chess with Ghost Dog. They converse, despite having no common language--the running gag being that they often say the same things. There is also a little girl, Pearline (Camille Winbush), whom Ghost Dog trades books with. She is like a small version of him, and indeed, Ghost Dog fans have been waiting for a Pearline sequel just as much as Kill Bill fans have been clamoring for the child of Vernita Green to grow up and take revenge.
See? There’s a lot going on. But it never seems like too much. Not under Jarmusch’s care. His hand is steady, his approach both easy and concise. He knows each move he needs to make, but he also isn’t afraid to breathe, to let a moment be loose. It’s a pretty impressive act, all said and done, and one could argue he’s applying all the lessons of the Hagakure to his modern Way of the Samurai, being nothing and being everything at once.
Fun aside, back in 1999, I was editor in chief of Oni Press and we were asked by the studio releasing Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai to do a one-off comic they could use as promotion. My business partner and publisher, Joe Nozemack, had the great idea of hiring Scott Morse (then doing our book Soulwind, currently a story man at Pixar and recently the author of Dugout: The Zombie Steals Home) to bring to life one of Ghost Dog’s perfect hits. We never interacted with Jim Jarmusch, alas, but it’s still an effort we are all very proud of. You can still find it here and there if you care to seek it out.
This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.
Saturday, October 31, 2020
If there is such a thing as a match made in heaven, the animated movie The Illusionist just may be the most convincing evidence of it we'll find here on Earth. This delightful movie is the latest effort by Sylvain Chomet, the gifted director responsible for The Triplets of Belleville. For this new feature, Chomet is adapting an unproduced screenplay by master French filmmaker Jacques Tati. Tati was a comic figure in the mold of Charlie Chaplin, playing the befuddled Monsieur Hulot in a series of films he wrote and directed, including Mon Oncle and what I consider to be his masterpiece, Playtime [review].
The central character of The Illusionist is a magician who looks and acts very much like Hulot; which is to say, Chomet has modeled the stage performer Jacques Tatischeff on Tati--tall, thin, a bit of a hound-dog face. The Illusionist is as Chomet imagined the author would have made it, rejigged slightly for the cartoon format, but otherwise very much in the spirit of the tale's originator.
The Illusionist is set in the late-1950s (the movie's most concrete reference to a specific time is a newspaper with a headline about the chilly relationship between Nixon and Khrushchev, which would have been during Eisenhower's Presidency). An aging stage magician, finding himself out of work in France, hits the road in search of a new gig. In London, he is upstaged by an hilariously effete rock band before being reduced to playing an outdoor party. There, a drunken Scotsman invites him out to his village, where the magician sets up in the local pub. His act goes down a storm. His tricks have a particular effect on the poverty-stricken, teenaged barmaid Alice, who isn't aware that the objects the man makes appear out of thin air aren't actually coming out of thin air. She believes magic is real and that the conjurer can make anything he wants.
Enchanted as she is by Tatischeff, Alice follows him when he leaves for Edinburgh, and touched by her devotion, the magician takes her under his care. Her appetite for new things is too hard for him to keep up with, however, particularly in light of his profession's flagging popularity. New technology and new sounds are pushing out the old music hall routines--Alice and the magician live in an apartment building with acrobats, ventriloquists, and clowns, all of whom are having trouble keeping their acts alive. Eventually, Tatischeff has to start moonlighting doing other jobs just to make ends meet.
Describing the basic plot of The Illusionist does it little justice. Tati emulated silent comedy, and he was more interested in humorous scenarios, quiet slapstick, and elaborate scenic concoctions than he was in traditional narrative. His movies rarely had dialogue--and indeed, there are only a handful of complete sentences spoken here, and most of those are either in French or Gaelic (I believe). In the same way Chaplin resisted talkies because they restricted which borders a movie could cross, so too did Tati strive for the universal by favoring behavior over banter. Laughter knows no language, and he communicated more with a gesture than most do with whole paragraphs.
It is to Chomet's supreme victory, then, that he so perfectly conjures his own illusion: the essence of Tati. The magician is an exact replica of Hulot, and yet doesn't exist as some mere carbon copy. This isn't another soulless digital manipulation made for a cola commercial; rather, this is more like an animated séance, of bringing the legend back from beyond the grave, and by using traditional hand-drawn animation (with just a smattering of digital effects), Chomet creates a supernatural dreamscape for Tati to once again perform his pratfalls, huff his harrumphs, and fill new audiences with laughter. The Illusionist is beautifully rendered. The backgrounds teem with a warm nostalgia while the portrayals of everyone from a sad-eyed French chanteuse to a greedy booking agent meld Tati's perception of human nature with the incisive wit of caricature. Chomet also takes liberties with the animals that occupy his world, giving them their own personalities far beyond what Tati could have achieved with the real thing. (Though, I must say, I would have loved to see the flesh-and-blood actor messing around with an honest-to-goodness rabbit.)
As traditional hand-drawn animation continues to become just that, "tradition," it's hard not to greet every movie that bucks the trend as the last of a dying breed. Fittingly, Tati's screenplay already had plenty to say about changing tastes and the obsolescence of old-style entertainment. This gives The Illusionist a surprisingly bittersweet tone in its final act. As his peers drift into other things or have their souls crushed, so too does Alice find other distractions, losing her need for the old man. For Tati, who was as fascinated and amused by technology as he was concerned about its effect on society, the ending is surprisingly concrete. Perhaps this contributed to why he never made The Illusionist himself, it would have required his saying good-bye to an art form he wasn't ready to let go of. Instead, Chomet has made that farewell for him, and done so as tribute. The Illusionist is its own long-distance wave goodbye to a one-of-a-kind performer, a wonderful ode to all that could have been.
Saturday, September 12, 2020
Criterion has always been kind to Jules Dassin, not just keeping many of his best films in print, but consistently upgrading them as new materials and technologies become available. The latest to join the Blu-ray ranks is the 1947-48 double-dose of Brute Force and The Naked City. This aren’t just cursory reissues, however, even if the external packages look the same; these new BDs, coming over a decade after their first editions, have brand-new 4K restorations that are, in a word, exceptional. The black-and-white photography has been fully cleaned-up, utilizing all the best sources, to bring every detail to life in a matter befitting the dark, gritty reality of Dassin’s world.
Burt Lancaster leads Brute Force [original review] as Collins, a desperate convict whose ailing wife has no idea he is in prison and is refusing medical treatment until he returns. This puts pressure on the hoodlum to find a way out, especially since he knows he’s not getting released by any legal means. He is resented and despised by the top guard at the prison, the sadistic Captain Munsey. Hume Cronyn exudes genuine evil as the mean-spirited screw. One scene in particular, where he tortures a man while playing classical music, dressed in only his undershirt, prefigures the greasy malevolence of Ralph Fiennes in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List many decades later. A Nazi connection to this kind of cruelty wasn’t lost on Dassin: the war is very much on the minds of the prisoners, especially the one nicknamed Soldier (Howard Duff), whose tales of combat will provide the blueprint for the breakout.
Soldier isn’t the only other inmate we get to know. Dassin and screenwriter Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood [review]) give each of Collins’ cellmates their due. As with The Naked City [original review]), Dassin is interested in all the stories, not just those of his main protagonist. How each man got to prison, and what they left behind, is important to why they want to get out. Especially since the picture morphs into an existential metaphor. As the alcoholic doctor reminds us in the end, all want escape, but it never comes in a manner we expect.
There is a similar theme present in The Naked City, particularly in the final scenes when the cops are closing in on the criminal, but the message of producer Mark Hellinger’s narration, and the script by Albert Maltz and Malvin Wald, is one of good over evil. While Brute Force is a dramatic hellscape where order is being imposed on the chaotic, The Naked City is a law-and-order environment where chaos is doggedly stamped out by the forces of justice. The film, famous for its documentary style and pretty much setting the template for television police procedurals--including its own namesake in the 1960s and eventually the entirety of Law & Order--is about solving one murder, because every life matters, even when that life is embroiled in crime.
Except it doesn’t, does it? Not really. Hence the bittersweet closing shots, and the classic declaration “There are eight million stories in the Naked City, this has been one of them.” Just one, of just one person, now ready to be forgotten. Because this is what we really can’t escape, while also being the only escape: oblivion.
Friday, August 28, 2020
Saturday, August 22, 2020
This review originally written in 2008 for DVDTalk.com as part of The Stanley Kramer Collection.
For this early production effort from Stanley Kramer, the pioneering producer enlisted the burgeoning talent Dr. Seuss to pen a surreal children's story about a young boy, Bartholomew Collins (Tommy Rettig), who hates playing the piano so much, he dreams of a world where his piano teacher, the nefarious Dr. T (Hans Conreid), is starting an institute where he will enslave 500 young boys and force them to tickle the ivories 24-7. Not only does this dream take on the childhood anxiety of being stuck in a life of boredom, it also addresses Bart's familial loneliness, imagining the nice plumber (Peter Lind Hayes) who has been working in his home as a father figure who will rescue Bart and his widowed mother (Mary Healy) from a life alone.
More of a cult hit than a children's classic, the clunky 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is most remembered for its enormous sets and bizarre villains, which bring Dr. Seuss visions to life in an overtly physical way. Made decades before digital effects, the gigantic locations were all built by hand, and it's fairly obvious. Watching the movie, you feel like you could reach in and pound your fist on the colorful walls. This gives the film a certain quaint charm that makes it possible to look past the barely-there story and wooden acting. Also of note is Hans Conreid, ever so delectable as the villain. He's largely familiar from Disney movies, particularly as the voice of Captain Hook in Peter Pan. It's a real treat to see him ham it up as the diabolical piano maestro.