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

I’m having a hard time thinking of something to say about Ghost Dog. It’s perfect. Jarmusch doesn’t just do a bunch of good things or a bunch of right things. Every single thing he does is perfect. And Ghost Dog is perfect pretty early on too–in the first five or ten minutes, I was completely lost in the film. I’ve seen it before, but not since the theater, and I didn’t remember it being so unspeakably great. It’s impossible to describe the film. I could list aspects of it, I suppose. It’d be a long list and I’d forget something anyway, because Ghost Dog creates an experience quite unlike anything else, even from Jarmusch, because with Ghost Dog, he’s dealing with familiar genres. Ghost Dog is a gangster movie. It’s a Japanese gangster movie, except with Italian gangs, and a black hit man. I suppose one could interpret it as being about the uselessness of violence and while Ghost Dog isn’t hostile to such interpretation, I find thinking about the film unpleasant. I want to remember the way I felt watching it, sure, but I don’t want to analyze it too much. I don’t want to examine Jarmusch’s use of humor, his frequent theme of people separated language, or anything else. Yes, I want to remember Cliff Gorman rapping along with Flavor Flav, but I really think examining that scene and trying to deconstruct it… might ruin the fact Gorman’s got a great voice and hearing him rap and seeing him dance is really funny.

I was about to say listing the film’s best supporting performances would essentially be a cast list, but I think I will take a second to mention John Tormey. Tormey’s really the film’s second lead, after Forest Whitaker, who’s amazing. While Ghost Dog has a constrained set of emotions–ways of the samurai code–Tormey gets to go through an incredible range of emotion. Whitaker runs the film, however. Everything he does is done with such precision, it’s impossible to imagine him doing anything else in the scene, much less someone else playing the character.

There are some major contributing factors to Ghost Dog‘s excellence (well, Jarmusch hired everyone, so I guess he’s ultimately responsible), such as the location–Jersey City, which has a perfect mix of urban decay and bright green trees–and the music (by RZA) and, obviously, cinematographer Robby Müller.

It’s an amazing film.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Jim Jarmusch; director of photography, Robby Muller; edited by Jay Rabinowitz; music by RZA; production designer, Ted Berner; produced by Richard Guay; released by Artisan Entertainment.

Starring Forest Whitaker (Ghost Dog), John Tormey (Louie), Camille Winbush (Pearline), Cliff Gorman (Sonny Valerio), Frank Minucci (Big Angie), Isaach de Bankole (Raymond), Victor Argo (Vinny) and Damon Whitaker (Young Ghost Dog).


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Ransom (1996, Ron Howard), the extended version

Ransom is not Richard Price’s only “big Hollywood” movie (and it’s probably not his most anomalous one either), but there’s something very particular about the film. You’re watching a mix of various 1990s genres–a Mel Gibson movie, a Richard Price cop movie, and a Ron Howard movie. Except not the current Oscar-bait Ron Howard, the incredibly sturdy and wonderful Ron Howard of that brief period in the 1990s. I’ve seen the original Ransom! and while it is different, most of what the remake adds is the Price-written Gary Sinise material. And it’s a Richard Price cop thing being used for the most Hollywood, blockbuster aspect of the film too, which might be why Ransom is so weird. You’d expect Price to contribute something a little off kilter, but instead, he’s building up toward the rousing finale.

I haven’t seen Ransom in years, mostly because I kept waiting for the as yet still missing DVD release of the extended edition. The longer version adds a lot for Delroy Lindo and, I think, Rene Russo to do. Because the majority of Ransom, the first hour and forty-five minutes of the two-twenty extended version is all Mel Gibson. It’s at least half character study and Gibson does a fantastic job. Mel the actor is always forgotten or ignored (today probably forgotten), but once he hit his 1990s stride (and it’s a spotty stride, but it’s a definite stride), he was giving excellent performances. Just some of his scenes in here, they’re fantastic. I sat and realized Mel Gibson of this era could do anything, he has some perfect scenes. You also get Gibson in contrast to Gary Sinise, who was still somewhat indie at this stage (appreciated only in TV movies) and Mel runs circles around him. Delroy Lindo’s great–the extended version adding significant layers of complexity to his character–and Rene Russo is good too. For about half the movie, she doesn’t have anything to do and then all of a sudden, she has to do everything for a ten minute stretch and she carries it. She and Gibson have a perfect chemistry too.

As for Ron Howard… the Ron Howard who made Ransom was about the most exciting filmmaker in Hollywood. I have no idea what happened (I can guess–pet project Edtv bombed–bombing pet projects often deter great careers, but Howard’s probably will never recover, which is a tragedy). He maintains a sense of coldness, of space-heater heating–he creates a physical temperature with Ransom (his cinematographer helps, of course)–and the attention he gives Mel Gibson, and just the way the film moves from character to character, kidnapper to parents, parents to cops, everything just moves perfectly. It never gets lost, which is amazing.

I always forget the 1990s really did have a bunch of great people making a bunch of really good movies. I mistrust my memory of it, but then I go back and look and I see these films again and think about the people making them and what they were making and something very definite happened and capital-f film suffered. I was about to blame it on Lucas and Episode I (with no basis other than he closed a loop of quality opened in 1977) then I was going to blame it on James Cameron and Titanic (Blockbuster-maker wins Oscar, inspires others to get insipid), but I’d rather close off with something more on Ransom. The last shot. It’s short and it’s over the end credits and it’s a time lapse of a screen corner and it doesn’t belong. Beautiful James Horner music (before he too became a joke) and just this confusing shot, which you get only after it’s moments from being totally black, and there’s something striking about beautiful about how Howard closes the story off for the viewer. It’s quick and graceful, but it’s a ‘thank you’ for watching my film. Other films having such ‘thank yous,’ but it’s inappropriate in Ransom and it’s nice for just that reason.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Ron Howard; written by Richard Price and Alexander Ignon, based on a story by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum; director of photography, Piotr Sobocinski; edited by Dan Hanley and Mike Hill; music by James Horner; production designer, Michael Corenblith; produced by Scott Rudin, Brian Grazer and B. Kipling Hagopian; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Mel Gibson (Tom Mullen), Rene Russo (Kate Mullen), Brawley Nolte (Sean Mullen), Gary Sinise (Jimmy Shaker), Delroy Lindo (Agent Lonnie Hawkins), Lili Taylor (Maris Connor), Liev Schreiber (Clark Barnes), Donnie Wahlberg (Cubby Barnes) and Evan Handler (Miles Roberts).


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Ocean’s Twelve (2004, Steven Soderbergh)

The amusement factor. Does that term even make any sense? Ocean’s Twelve is, in case anyone watching it was confused (which I find hard to believe, but of the principals, only George Clooney makes exclusively smart movies so Brad Pitt and Matt Damon fans are suspect), about enjoying itself. It throws itself a party no less. If a person doesn’t like having a good time, they aren’t going to like Ocean’s Twelve (and I’ve heard from plenty of people who don’t), because it’s all about having a good time. Nothing else. There’s other stuff in it–Steven Soderbergh treats the whole thing as an in-joke. From the editing, the music, the photography, there’s a lot of reference to European films (well, French and Italian, no one references many British films) of the 1950s and 1960s. And Ocean’s Twelve is very in-jokey. Almost everyone beyond the principals (and then, even some of them) come straight from other Soderbergh films. While the first film was a real movie–with a real narrative–this one eschews all that nonsense to give the viewer two entertaining hours.

What’s most exciting about a Soderbergh film is seeing what he’s learned since last time. For instance, Ocean’s Twelve is directly informed by his work on Full Frontal. The stuff Soderbergh does in this film–this Hollywood blockbuster–is unbelievable. Trying to imagine a theater-full of people watching this film might have given me more pleasure than it should have. Half the technical aspects of it are Soderbergh mocking the movie-going audience. He’s not slowly introducing people to new ideas or giving them an opportunity to discover foreign-language films they might not have seen. He’s making fun, but he’s also having fun and, as a result, many of the performances in Ocean’s Twelve are among its cast’s best. I’m thinking primarily of Catherine Zeta-Jones, who always takes herself (as a superstar-in-the-making) so seriously to middling effect; she’s fantastic in this film. She and Brad Pitt ought to do about six more movies together. Pitt, in his comedic mode, is so obviously good I wasn’t even going to mention him. Pitt should only do comedies. Matt Damon, however, has a lot to do in Twelve–definitely more than George Clooney, who disappears for a large portion of the film–and Damon’s good. I barely remember him from the first one and while the rest of the cast play outlandish enough characters they establish themselves immediately, Damon actually has to do some work… and he does an excellent job.

I quickly queued Ocean’s Twelve after a friend said he couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it, in that hushed, “You haven’t seen Paths of Glory?” tone, but then he went on to explain it was just such a wonderful experience to watch the film. I didn’t just feel bad when it was over, I felt bad when I was twenty-two minutes in and I realized I only had another hundred minutes to go. It’s a delight.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by George Nolfi; director of photography, Peter Andrews; edited by Stephen Mirrione; music by David Holmes; production designer, Philip Messina; produced by Jerry Weintraub; released by Warner Bros.

Starring George Clooney (Danny Ocean), Brad Pitt (Rusty Ryan), Matt Damon (Linus Caldwell), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Isabel Lahiri), Andy Garcia (Terry Benedict), Don Cheadle (Basher Tarr), Bernie Mac (Frank Catton), Julia Roberts (Tess Ocean), Casey Affleck (Virgil Malloy), Scott Caan (Turk Malloy), Vincent Cassel (François Toulour), Eddie Jemison (Livingston Dell), Carl Reiner (Saul Bloom), Shaobo Qin (Yen) and Elliott Gould (Reuben Tishkoff).


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Superman II (1980, Richard Donner), the Richard Donner cut

Superman II might just be broken. Watching “The Richard Donner Cut,” it’s an easy conclusion to come to–the greatly anticipated Marlon Brando scenes feature a callow, selfish Superman–not one who’s bursting with love for Lois Lane, like in the theatrical version. Also problematic is the utter lack of super–it’s a Superman movie, but this version of Superman II doesn’t actually have any real Superman scenes besides the rescue of the kid at Niagara Falls and then the last act city fight (which isn’t any better). He’s not doing anything super… it’s tedious, because so much of the Lois and Clark romance is shredded. I remember a review for the Daredevil director’s cut pointing out, although Jennifer Garner has the same amount of screen time, the film’s so much less painful because of the additional scenes without her. Well, this cut of Superman II has less Superman–and even has less Kryptonian supervillains–but it seems like they’re in it a lot more… and it’s not a good thing. They were shallow characters to begin with and they aren’t any better here.

While it was nice to see the Daily Planet newsroom under Donner’s vision again–and the maligned ending actually works out fine (if you forgive the uselessness of taking away Lois’s memory of Superman, which makes no sense in any version and does a disservice to the romance), well even–the only really nice stuff in the Donner Cut is extra Gene Hackman scenes. There are only a couple, both with Valerie Perrine, and they’re both great. I was hoping Perrine would show up again, but alas, she did not and the film was coasting along–most of the scenes not working because there was nothing connecting them anymore, with all the cuts of Lester-filmed material–until Hackman shows up again.

There’s one scene created from a combination of screen tests and, while the differences are noticeable, it’s a well-acted scene–even if it isn’t better than what was in the theatrical version. There are new special effects, some of which are fine, some of which needed something as simple as a black level fix and didn’t get it. John Williams has sole composer credit now and it’s all music from the first film recycled and you can tell. This version of Superman II sounds all wrong.

It’s unfortunate, after all the hubbub, it didn’t turn out to be a major achievement or something. Like I said, maybe it just doesn’t work in any form.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Richard Donner; written by Mario Puzo, David Newman and Leslie Newman, from a story by Puzo, based on characters created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster; creative consultant, Tom Mankiewicz; directors of cinematography, Robert Paynter and Geoffrey Unsworth; edited by Stuart Baird, Michael Thau and John Victor-Smith; music by John Williams; production designers, John Barry and Peter Murton; produced by Pierre Spengler and Thau; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Gene Hackman (Lex Luthor), Christopher Reeve (Clark Kent/Superman), Marlon Brando (Jor-El), Ned Beatty (Otis), Jackie Cooper (Perry White), Sarah Douglas (Ursa), Margot Kidder (Lois Lane), Jack O’Halloran (Non), Valerie Perrine (Ms. Teschmacher), E.G. Marshall (The President), Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen) and Terence Stamp (General Zod).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | SUPERMAN.

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