Thursday, November 16, 2017

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) 3 of 4

** only minor spoilers **

The publication on Bright Lights Film Journal of my essay brought to mind this Jim Jarmusch indie.  In 1999, The Sopranos was briefly in the shadow of Analyze This, about a mobster (Robert DeNiro) in therapy.  Less noted was the overlap with Ghost Dog, which could almost be The Sopranos as seen by an African-American, if a self-taught samurai.  Here's more evidence of television's resistance to change: as HBO launched David Chase's novel-for-TV, the American New Wave was well into a second generation of (postmodern) gangster films: see also Miller's Crossing, Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, The Boondock Saints, Summer of Sam.

Forest Whitaker is ideally cast as a reflective loner living off-the-grid in a modern U.S. city: no amnesiac, he's a spiritually awake hit man.  He steals a car but prioritizes the sound system, pumping eclectic hip-hop.  He'll break his meditative isolation for other noncomformists: a man building a boat on a rooftop; an elderly man who's a poor choice for a mugger.  Perhaps most resonant: an encounter with white hunters who've killed a bear.  When the bearish Ghost Dog objects, the elder hunter says, "This isn't an ancient culture."  Ghost Dog: "Sometimes it is."

Even as conflict rises, Ghost Dog stresses its title character's mutual respect with the local mafiosi, for they too have a code.  Arguably, these Italians are too comic: they watch cartoons, are fatter and older than The Sopranos, even more clearly on-their-way-out.  But maybe that's why Ghost Dog is reading (the basis for) Rashomon: it's how he sees the Mafia.  Consistent with the slowed pulse of his oeuvre, Jarmusch counters the chop of culture-change with Ghost Dog's Zen calm.

Like any Jarmusch film, Ghost Dog has cinematic cool and a great soundtrack (by RZA), while being not-for-all-tastes.  If Analyze This was cute but disposable, Jarmusch tends to improve on second viewing, as we adjust to the intriguing protagonist aloof from Western society.  As a substitute, Ghost Dog liberally quotes his dog-eared copy of "The Book of the Samurai": he's relation to the seekers in The Tao of Steve, Amelie, and The Matrix.  And like Marlo on The Wire, he keeps pigeons, a chance to practice patience, even as he gently urges the birds home to roost.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Dead & Buried (1981) 3 of 4

** this review contains moderate spoilers throughout **

Dead & Buried doesn't fit neatly into horror's plot-based subgenres: despite year-of-release, it's not a slasher.  The undead are represented, but it's not exactly a zombie movie.  A weird tale set in New England, it's arguably Lovecraftian.

On the extras, Dan O'Bannon admits he wrote little of the film, his name used for marketing purposes.  In any case, the nebulous story is excuse for remarkable craft, especially the direction,  cinematography, and practical effects (by Stan Winston).  Gary Sherman's follow-up to  the legendary Death Line is oneiric and rapturous as any Mario Bava film.  It also evokes Salem's Lot (1979), The Beyond, Twin Peaks and the grindhouse aesthetic.

"you might feel a prick" (Lisa Blount)
Sherman and company made economical use of a cast better known (ultimately) for television: James Farentino (Dynasty, Melrose Place), Jack Albertson (Chico and the Man), Melody Anderson (St. Elsewhere, Jake and the Fatman).  Lisa Blount (cult series Profit) makes an impression, especially in the knockout opening scene, and Robert Englund appears, pre-Freddy.  Cinematographer Steven Poster would shoot the TV movies Mysterious Two and Testament, and theatrical films such as those of Richard Kelly, including Donnie Darko, also about the seductiveness of death.

Where Europe is haunted by the Black Death, colonialism, and the Holocaust, America has its own ghosts rattling chains in the national attic.  U.S. horror references slavery, if obliquely, as with this film's serial victims, and maritime references including a foghorn.  The maritime theme is present in such movies as The Uninvited, Night Tide, I Know What You Did Last Summer and The Mist, and monster movies such as King Kong and Jaws.

A film maudit, Dead & Buried was itself buried, reportedly by studio bankruptcy.  While perhaps not a classic, it's evidence of what's been lost for today's iPhone eyesores (everything's gray -- no long shots -- "progress").  By turns lush and gory, Dead & Buried is ideal for high-performance blu-ray.