Monday, November 16, 2020

Ghost Dog

 


GHOST DOG: THE WAY OF THE SAMURAI (Jarmusch, 1999)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Nov 17, 2020

Review by Christopher S. Long

Critics who thought they had Jim Jarmusch safely categorized as a wry humorist and a minimalist observer of outsiders and “dead-end kids” (as Pauline Kael described the protagonists of “Stranger Than Paradise”) were forced to scramble when the revisionist Western “Dead Man” (1995) introduced shocking new elements to the writer/director's arsenal. Periodically erupting in graphic violent outbursts, “Dead Man” pointed an accusing middle finger at the “stupid fucking white men” who engineered a mass genocide against Native Americans, a slaughter so cruel and so vast it permanently scarred the landscape itself.

Jarmusch stayed in his new bloody lane with his next feature, “Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai” (1999). Now the stupid fucking white men are wheezing dollar-store mafiosos, old men who can barely climb a set of stairs or scrape together enough money to pay the landlord at their little clubhouse where they mostly watch cartoons. But the single defining truism about American life as portrayed in both “Dead Man” and “Ghost Dog” is that any stupid fuck can pull a trigger.

Like the mobsters, the film's title character adheres to an old code of behavior, but unlike them, he's put a great deal of thought into his guiding philosophy. Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) reads daily from the “Hagakure”, a book of samurai aphorisms he uses to shape his idiosyncratic approach to being a modern-day hitman. Ghost Dog samples freely from diverse sources of wisdom as well, including Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein”, Ryunosuke Akutagawa's short-story collection “Rashomon”, and modern hip-hop - RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan provides the film's propulsive, hypnotic score, and it seems like Ghost Dog can hear every non-diegetic note. And talk about keeping it old school, Ghost Dog even sends messages exclusively by homing pigeon.

Plot rarely matters much in a Jarmusch film, but to provide a brief capsule: Ghost Dog serves as a loyal retainer to low-level mobster Louie (John Tormey). While conducting a hit for Louie, something goes awry, and the other mobsters decide the assassin must be eliminated. To serve honor, or some such nonsense. This confrontation augurs poorly for the aging made men, of course – hell, Ghost Dog even knows how to shoot his mark from the other end of a kitchen sink drain – but Jarmusch lavishes as much attention on Ghost Dog's down time as on his killing exploits.

Ghost Dog likes to hang out with his friend Raymond (Isaach de Bankole), an affable Haitian ice-cream truck vendor who only speaks French. Ghost Dog only speaks English (or at least no French) but this doesn't interfere with their ability to understand each other. The spoken word is only one limited form of communication, a theme Jarmusch had already touched on in “Mystery Train” (1989) and other films. The efficient killer also bonds with Pearline (Camille Winbush), a nine-year-old bookworm who instinctively seems to “get” Ghost Dog.

The film piles up both bodies and humorous vignettes. In a hilarious display of a lack of self-awareness, a couple of the mobsters (including a stoic Henry Silva whose face is fixed in a rictus) mock both black hip-hop artists and Native Americans for adopting “funny” names like Flavor Flav or Red Cloud before calling out for their compatriots Joey Rags and Sammy the Snake. In the film's signature execution, Sonny Valerio (Cliff Gorman) dances alone in his bathroom while singing along to Public Enemy before Ghost Dog takes him out with one laser-pointer shot to the head.

The great cinematographer Robby Muller captures the moody night-time city streets (possibly meant to be New York, though mostly filmed in Jersey City) with an impressionist eye, employing multiple dissolves to show Ghost Dog gliding through the streets in his unique fashion, largely undetected by the locals, perhaps moving to the pervasive beat of RZA's driving score. The film's visual centerpiece, however, is Forest Whitaker's face, his drooping left eyelid (a congenital condition) drawing even more attention to the magnetic power of his gaze. Ghost Dog sees all from a serene vantage point, simultaneously positioned right at street level but also observing dispassionately from a spiritual plane at least once-removed.

Though the film pokes fun at its clueless, impotent mobsters, it still ends with a lament for the mutual obsolescence of both the way of the mafioso and the “way of the samurai.” As Ghost Dog puts it when he confronts Louie at the end, they both come from “different ancient tribes” now staring down the barrel of a new millennium that has no use for either of them. 

 

 

Video:

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. From Criterion: “This new digital transfer was created in 16-bit 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the 35 mm original A/B camera negative” and was supervised by Jarmusch. The only other North American release I'm aware of is the 2003 SD release by Artisan. The colors on that one look a bit garish while this 1080p transfer showcases more muted, naturalistic colors. The image resolution is sharp and looks great in motion.

Audio:

The DTS- HD 5.1 Master Audio mix treats sound effects well while also presenting RZA's score with depth. The disc also provides an audio option to listen just to the isolated score in a 2.0 mix. Optional English subtitles support the audio.

Extras:

This Criterion Blu-ray release includes both new and older supplementary features.

As with a few past Jarmusch releases from Criterion, we get a lengthy Q&A session (84 minutes) with the director. He fields a random array of questions sent in by fans, touching on topics from the production of the film to what music he's been listening to during the pandemic and so on. This was recorded in June 2020.

Another new feature is a video conference interview (20 min.) with actors Forest Whitaker and Isaach de Bankole, conducted by film scholar Michael B. Gillespie. Again they cover an array of topics, though mostly centering on their memories of making “Ghost Dog” a little more than twenty years ago.

Criterion has also included an audio feature (15 min.) in which casting director Ellen Lewis discusses her process for auditioning various actors for roles. This turned out to be quite fascinating, especially because Lewis is clearly passionate about the casting even of minor roles in the film. It feels like she talks about virtually everybody who appears in the movie.

We also get two older interviews, which, though separate, are taken from the same taping session with Jarmusch, Whitaker, and composer RZA. The first is a 15-minute interview. The second is a 21-minute promotional piece titled “The Odyssey: A Journey Into the Life of a Samurai” which was included on the old DVD release from Artisan Pictures.

The disc also includes a short interview (5 min.) with Shifu Shi Yan Ming, martial arts teacher and founder of the USA Shaolin Temple. He's friends with both Jarmusch and RZA.

We also get a 15-minute piece about the music of “Ghost Dog” along with several short Deleted Scenes/Outtakes (5 min. total) and a Theatrical Trailer (1 min.)

Criterion has included two insert booklets this time. The 40-page booklet includes essays by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum and Greg Tate, as well as excerpts from a 2000 interview with Jarmusch, conducted by Ted Lippy. We also get a tiny replica of the “Hagakure”, featured so prominently in the film, though this just includes a few short excerpts from the book.

Film Value:

“Ghost Dog” has been in need of a quality high-def release for some time now, and Criterion delivers the goods with a sharp 1080p transfer and a strong collection of extra features.

 

Monday, October 26, 2020

Parasite

 


PARASITE (Bong, 2019)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 27, 2020

Review by Christopher S. Long

The Oscars had a chance to make history in 2020. Odds makers slightly favored Sam Mendes' “1917,” a two-hour video game cut scene featuring wooden acting and a histrionic plot that makes “Raiders of the Lost Ark” look like a Wiseman documentary. Following on the heels of “The Shape of Water” and “Green Book,” a Best Picture nod to Mendes' mendacious misfire would have secured the Academy three years of historic shame worth bragging about for life. Instead, voters eschewed a legacy by handing the statuette to Korean director Bong Joon-ho's “Parasite” (2019), an actual good movie, and the first foreign-language film to win the big award. Which is history too.

Set in Seoul, the film opens in the cramped semi-basement apartment of the Kim family. A long, thin window peeks out at an alley where drunks stop to piss and extermination trucks belch out thick billows of chemicals, unaware or unconcerned that anyone might be living nearby. Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho), the family patriarch, welcomes the death cloud that envelops the entire family in their living room. After all, the apartment is infested with bugs, and the family can't afford pesticides on the salary they earn from folding pizza boxes. A job at which, to be honest, they're not even that good.

The son, Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik), soon seizes a better job opportunity, serving as an English tutor to the teenage daughter (Jung Ziso) of the wealthy Park family. Their gated house (built by a famous architect you've surely heard of) provides a stark contrast to the Kim estate. As Mrs. Park (Cho Yeo-jeong) introduces Ki-woo to his new workplace, the camera follows as they pass through glistening white rooms and walk down immense corridors that sprawl to both ends of the widescreen frame. The mansion's many windows offer a slightly more scenic view than a piss-soaked back street, mostly acres upon acres of sculpted green space, just sitting empty until the family decides to host its next party.

Ki-woo might have forged his credentials to get his tutoring gig, but initially he seems like an ambitious go-getter just trying to climb the ladder and haul his family out of poverty. By his own bootstraps, of course, just like all successful people. But the Kims (and, presumably, Bong Joon-ho, who also co-wrote the script) are too savvy to believe in the myth of easy social mobility, at least by legally sanctioned means. They realize that this situation calls for a full-blown caper, a con job, an outright heist. Ferreting out the needs and vulnerabilities of the upper-crust family, Ki-woo finds reasons to introduce his entire family, under various aliases, into the employ of the Parks, including his father, his sister (Park So-dam) and mother (Chang Hyae-jin).

The distinct contrast in living spaces potentially sets up a didactic clash of Kims vs. Parks as one of good vs. evil, privileged vs. exploited, but the film offers a much more nuanced social critique. To achieve their goals in a hardscrabble world where every winner requires a loser, the Kims engage in intra-class warfare, sabotaging the Parks' long-time servants, including a housekeeper (Lee Jung-eun) with both plans and working-class problems of her own. And the Kims' goal isn't so much to supplant the Parks, as primarily to install themselves as servants to the rich. Even the enterprising Kims at their most audacious can only dream so grandly; they know their place in modern society.

The Parks themselves are not malicious, but mostly oblivious, though that may be even a greater sin in a nation defined by economic inequity. While the Kims (and the housekeeper and the chauffeur and virtually everyone else) struggle for everything, the Parks remain blind to the fact that anyone has to struggle at all. This makes them perfect marks for the Kims' improvised schemes, and also leaves the Parks, along with audiences, completely shocked by the eruption of violence in the third act. Why would anyone be mad at us?

The film shifts deftly from wry humor and the general warmth of the Kim family with each other to the ruthless competition for the scraps left behind by the rich and a Grand Guignol climax. The cast is uniformly convincing, with longtime Bong collaborator Song Kang-ho shining as a defeated but not despondent man with a cheerfully bleak view of a society which offers little hope for those born without connections. In his view, it's best not to have a plan at all, because then nothing can go wrong and “nothing fucking matters.”

It's easy to understand why the Academy voters were as excited as the Cannes jury members who awarded “Parasite” the Palme d'Or in 2019. Still, just imagine: “The Shape of Water,” “Green Book” and “1917” all in a row. The Academy could have ended the decade in utter disgrace, the same as America. It would have been glorious. 

 


Video:

The film is presented in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. This 1080p transfer looks nothing short of immaculate, so much so that I can think of nothing to say save that it surely looks as good as it did in theaters.

Audio:

Criterion has provided a Dolby Atmos sound mix (7.1), and I won't claim that I know enough about audio formats to determine how different this sounds from the more typical Criterion stereo mix in DTS-HD Master Audio. I also don't own a system strong enough to showcase a more robust mix like this. I'll trust other reviewers who are wowed by the depth of this surround design. Optional English subtitles support the Korean audio.

Extras:

Criterion has stacked the extras on this two-disc Blu-ray release.

The most notable feature is a black-and-white cut of “Parasite,” included on the second disc. This cut is identical in every way to the theatrical release of the film, except that it is rendered in black-and-white. When asked why he wanted to offer a B&W version even though the film was always intended to be shot in color, Bong states simply that it was “an itch I had to scratch,” and a nod to many of the classic films that fueled his cinephilia. It looks just as sharp in high-def as the color version on Disc One does.

Other supplemental features are spread out across both discs.

On Disc One, the film is accompanied by a new commentary track by Bong and film critic Tony Rayns.

The rest of the features on Disc One consist of interviews with crew members: Bong Joon-ho (36 min.) in conversation with critic/translator Darcy Paquet, cinematographer Hong Kyung-pyo (21 min.), production designer Lee Ha-jun (22 min.), and editor Yang Jin-mo (15 min.) The interviews touch on a range of technical subjects, but the picture that emerges of Bong is of a director who plans everything ahead of time and usually shoots very closely to his storyboards. The disc also includes two Theatrical Trailers (4 min. total).

In addition to the B&W cut of the film, Disc Two includes a conversation between Bong and director Park Chan-wook (“Oldboy”, etc.) They talk about the emergence of New Korean Cinema, the film movement they played a major role in. They discuss the gradual thawing of South Korean censorship beginning around the early-1990s, which made many more films available to eager young movie lovers like themselves. VHS and DVD also allowed these budding filmmakers to watch scenes over and over to study them for their own work.

We also get a press conference (28 min.) from the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where “Parasite” won the Palme d'Or. This is a panel discussion with Bong and his cast members.

Criterion has also included a “Lumiere Master Class” (82 min.) in which Bong is on stage in an event hosted by French director Bertrand Tavernier, who is a very, very big fan of Bong. For any audience members who have been shamed for asking silly questions at post-screening events, please note that the legendary Tavernier begins by, basically, asking Bong where he gets his ideas from.

Disc Two closes out with a Trailer (1 min.) and a “Storyboard Comparison” (6 min.) which, as you can probably guess, provides split-screen comparisons of the original storyboards to the final scenes from the movie.

The fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic Inkoo Kang.

Final Thoughts:

Did “Parasite” really win the Oscar this year? This decade-long year? That's not possible.

With a black-and-white version of the film plus a ton of extras, “Parasite” fans can't ask for much more than Criterion has provided with this two-disc set.

 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

The Gunfighter

 


THE GUNFIGHTER (King, 1950)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 20,2020

Review by Christopher S. Long

Nobody ever tried so hard to get shot as Eddie.

Poor, dumb Eddie (Richard Jaeckel). Just a kid raised on the thrills of the dime-novel insta-fables of the American West, and bored with the dusty, manure-drenched reality of actually living in the American West. When the legendary gunfighter Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) saunters into the local saloon, a toothy smile cracks Eddie's face. That's the fastest gun in the West? The man who's tougher than Wyatt Earp? The killer who's gunned down fifty men just for looking at him the wrong way?

“He don't look so tough to me,” says Eddie before confidently striding up to the bar.

Rest in peace, Eddie. Nobody will remember you.

Jimmy Ringo really didn't have a choice. Honest. He gave Eddie every chance to walk away with his life and even his dignity intact, but the kid wanted to make a name for himself. And he drew first! You all saw it. Sure, but Eddie's brothers don't care who drew first, so Ringo rides off to the town of Cayenne where he is greeted with the familiar refrain: “He don't look so tough to me.” There's always another Eddie.

Director Henry King and star Gregory Peck had just bombed the hell out of the Nazis in “Twelve O'Clock High” (1949), and reteamed in “The Gunfighter” (1950) to tear down the myth of the fearless outlaw. Just 35-years-old, a weary Jimmy Ringo already buckles under the burden of a lifetime of bad decisions. He could have chosen love, but he wanted to be the best and most-feared gunfighter of them all, and so he is. Which means that every Eddie who wants to be the best gunfighter of them all needs to go right through him. Preferably with all six shots. (See also: The “Twilight Zone” episode “A Game of Pool” for a variation on the same story.)

Ringo is all but resigned to his fate, but he clings to one tendril of hope in the form of his old flame, Peggy (Helen Westcott), and their son, who doesn't even know who his father is. That's the real reason Ringo fled to Cayenne, but to get to Peggy he first has to get past town marshal Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell).

Up until this point, Peck has portrayed Ringo as grim and slouching, a lost soul with no joy, but when he sees the marshal he breaks out his movie-star smile. Mark and Ringo used to ride together, and Ringo know this is the one man he can trust in this fallen world. But the marshal also serves as a reminder of Ringo's misguided life choices. The reformed Mark has a purpose now, a community that relies on him. Mark is so at ease with his life and his home he doesn't even need to wear his guns. Ringo is a living legend, Mark is a grown man. Millard Mitchell, a reliable character actor, delivers a charming, confident performance that, at times, eclipses even Peck's leading man charisma.

The film's gunfights are few and barely glimpsed, over the instant they start, just a ringing shot and a puff of smoke left behind. King and his creative team, including cinematographer Arthur C. Miller and the redoubtable editor Barbara McLean (who receives a lot of attention on this disc's extra features), are more interested in creating a concrete sense of place that grounds the legend in reality. Mark repeatedly strides the length of the main road in Cayenne while Ringo remains trapped in the saloon, just waiting, constantly checking the clock. Boys crowd in to get a glimpse of the great outlaw, and the local Church ladies demand justice, a quick hanging perhaps. The bartender (a then still mostly unknown Karl Malden) looks forward to his saloon becoming a big tourist attraction thanks to Ringo. Peggy sees Ringo's inevitable fate even more clearly than he does.

And, of course, the next Eddie lines up for his chance to take down Jimmy Ringo. After all, he don't look so tough.

 

Video:

The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. From the Criterion booklet: “This 4k digital restoration was supervised by the Twentieth Century Fox Restoration Department in 2015. A new digital transfer was created from a 35 mm duplicate negative and restored at Cineric in New York.” This 1080p transfer presents the black-and-white photography in sharp detail with a thick grain that lends it an authentic filmic look. Detail is sharp in motion as well as in static close-ups.

Audio:

The linear PCM mono audio mix is crisp with no evidence of distortion or drop offs. The film only features music (by composer Alfred Newman) at the beginning and end. Both sound effects and dialogue are treated well with this mix. Optional SDH English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:

Criterion has included a healthy selection of supplemental features on this Blu-ray.

The extras start with an interview (2020, 23 min.) with filmmaker, writer, and archivist Gina Telaroli who champions director Henry King, often overlooked because he wasn't as much of a stylist as more celebrated auteurs. She discusses his early career as a silent film actor and his transition to directing, emphasizing his interest in story and location.

Telaroli also discusses the contributions of editor Barbara McLean, but film historian and author J.E. Smyth takes a much closer look at McLean's career (2020, 23 min.) McLean received seven Oscar nominations and was the favored editor of both producer Darryl F. Zanuck and director Henry King. McLean was so powerful at Twentieth Century Fox she could not only order re-shoots, but even direct them when needed. This is a marvelous supplement and I would love to watch a full-length documentary about McLean. The second half of this feature analyzes the editing choices in a few scenes from “The Gunfighter.”

The disc also includes two audio features. Both compile audio excerpts from interviews conducted by Thomas R. Stempel as part of the AFI Oral History Collection. From a 1970 interview (33 min.) we get to hear from Barbara McLean about her career, while a 1971 interview (36 min.) hands the microphone to director Henry King.

The slim foldout booklet features an essay by film critic K. Austin Collins.

Final Thoughts:

Revisionist Westerns began well before the 1960s. No single film is the first, but “The Gunfighter” is a vivid early example of a deceptively simple story that interrogates and undermines many of the conventions of the genre. With a sharp transfer and a solid collection of extras, this release makes a fine addition to the Western corner of the Criterion Collection.

The Hit

 


THE HIT (Frears, 1984)

Criterion Collection, Blu-ray, Release Date Oct 20, 2020

Review by Christopher S. Long

Willie Parker (Terence Stamp) is a two-bit hood who sings like a canary to save his own skin. During his testimony, the “supergrass” (British slang for a snitch) mugs for his courtroom audience, relishing the brief moment when he actually matters. He has no idea just how much he matters until the former compatriots he's just sold out sing him off the stand with a menacing chorus of “We'll Meet Again,” an absurdist touch rendered no less absurd for the fact that it really happened to Bertie Smalls, the crook turned stool pigeon whose story loosely inspired director Stephen Frears's “The Hit” (1984).

Fast forward ten years and Parker is living the good life in rural Spain, still under witness protection. Parker's had time (he has nothing but time) to read and to think. The thief has turned philosopher, adopting a dispassionate outlook on life: “We're here. Then we're not here. We're somewhere else. Maybe.” His detachment serves him well when the day he knew was coming finally arrives (“Don't know where, don't know when”) and a group of thugs kidnap him from his home. He resists at first in an eccentrically staged fight that feels like a but of an homage to Nicolas Roeg, but once trapped on the roof he shrugs and resigns himself to his fate.

Parker is handed over to a pair of thugs, the world-weary Braddock (John Hurt) and rookie smartass Myron (an impossibly young Tim Roth in his first film role), whose assignment is to bring Parker back to Paris where his old boss will execute him. Myron snarls and preens, straining to look as cool and tough as possible, while the veteran Braddock plays it close to the vest, his tightly-drawn features revealing little, making his sudden violent eruptions even more frightening.

Braddock is a consummate professional, focused solely on the job at hand, but he becomes increasingly agitated by Parker's impenetrable serenity. This man knows he's going to die in a few days, so why the hell does he seem to be so happy about it? The implacable killer has survived many tight spots and outmuscled plenty of tough guys, but he may not be able to triumph against the most remorseless foe of all – philosophy. A hired gun can't maintain his sociopathic edge while contemplating the meaning of life.

Stephen Frears directed a feature in 1971, but honed his craft in television before returning to the big screen with “The Hit,” working from a smart script by Peter Prince. Frears displays an easy command of scale and location, contrasting numerous tense scenes in cramped cars with the wide-open beauty of the Spanish countryside. Ramshackle gas stations are filmed with the same beauty and dynamism as majestic windmills and waterfalls. The film also cuts away frequently from tight-quarters action to distant overhead analytical shots (tiny cars kicking up dust on lonely back roads) that chill the action and refresh the perspective. Prince's script, meanwhile, imbues each character with an independent vitality, including young Maggie (Laura del Sol), a gangster's fiery girlfriend who they pick up along the way. Everyone may be traveling in the same direction, but they're each on their own journey.

All of the film's knotty threads and character arcs converge in one memorable moment. When Parker's true devotion to his bespoke Zen doctrine is revealed, the irreverent punk Myron laughs derisively. It's a brilliant bit of acting, and an efficient expression of all the film's roiling tensions, all its turbulent crosscurrents swirling together in a short, sharp snort that says, “Are you fucking kidding me? Did we really come all the way just for this bullshit?”

Road movies frequently end up in the heart of nowhere. Few chart the journey it with the bleak panache of “The Hit.” 

 

Video:

The film is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. This appears to be a 1080p upgrade of the previous transfer used by Criterion when they originally released “The Hit” on DVD in 2009. The color palette is rich and naturalistic and image resolution is sharp throughout, as is customary with Criterion high-def transfers.

Audio:

The linear PCM mono sound mix isn't too dynamic, but is sharp. The raging title song by Eric Clapton and the score by Paco de Lucia are both presented strongly here. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.

Extras:

Criterion's 2009 DVD release was fairly sparse on extras, and nothing has been added for this 2020 Blu-ray upgrade.

The film is accompanied by a commentary track featuring Frears, Hurt, Roth, Prince, and editor Mick Audsley.

Aside from a Trailer (3 min.), the only other extra is an episode of the British talk show “Parkinson One-to-One” (1988, 37 min.) The entire show is devoted to an interview with actor Terence Stamp. Stamp only briefly mentions “The Hit” but discusses his career ranging from his start as a cool '60s icon to his relative disappearance in the '70s and his return to Hollywood in “Superman.” This includes a fun anecdote about Marlon Brando.

The slim fold-out insert booklet features an essay by film critic Graham Fuller.

Final Thoughts:

“The Hit” was not a hit with audiences. Frears would have to wait a year for his break-out with “My Beautiful Laundrette” (1985). It is, however, a splendid gangster film that rejects any romanticizing of its lowlife protagonists. The Criterion disc is short on extras, but provides a quality high-def transfer of a very fine film.