Tag Archives: character study

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai – Review

9 Mar

Jim Jarmusch is quite possibly one of the most critically acclaimed film makers working in the industry today. Even with all of this critical feedback, his films rarely see the light of day in terms of the mainstream market, but Jarmusch never compromises his vision for something more accessible, and I respect that. While most of his films are very interesting an defy genre conventions, one that really stands out to me is Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, which was released in 1999. It’s a story that combines a mafia crime story with an urban drama that has elements of an Eastern samurai tale. It’s a very unique movie that has a lot of elements working together, but sometimes at the expense of other aspects that could have been explored more.

Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is a mysterious hit man that lives by the code of the samurai, which was written in the Hagakure. Part of the code is to honor his boss, a mobster named Louie (John Tormey) who saved his life some years before this story takes place. Part of his honoring Louie is to perform contract hits without question. One of the hits is Handsome Frank (Richard Portnow), a made man who is in a relationship with mafia don Vargo’s (Henry Silva) daughter (Tricia Vessey). After successfully performing the hit with the daughter being unexpectedly present for it, Vargo puts a hit on Ghost Dog, much to the chagrin of Louie, who is forced to go along with it to some degree. Now, Ghost Dog is going to have to come out of seclusion, and in the traditional ways of the samurai, get his revenge on the mafia family that wants him dead.

So while this does have a pretty classic revenge story going on, the core of this movie is Ghost Dog. It’s more of a character study than anything else. There’s bursts of violence that happen, but it’s the downtime that sticks with me more. There’s a great scene in a park where Ghost Dog is talking to this little girl he just met about different kinds of books. This scene added a lot of humanity to Ghost Dog, a man who is essentially a murderer for hire. This kind of humanity makes him a very conflicted and complicated character whereas he can be gentle to most anyone he meets, but also kill you without batting an eye. This study of Ghost Dog makes for slow paced storytelling, but it works for this movie. What doesn’t really work is when the slow pace slows down to a halt. There’s a lot of scenes where Ghost Dog is just driving and listening to music, which is brilliantly composed by RZA. As great as the music is, these scenes go on way to long, and unless you’re 100% invested in everything in this movie, you’ll probably find yourself drifting from time to time.

What really makes Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai unique is the seamless genre blending. Like I said before, this film works as an urban drama and a crime thriller with sprinklings of Eastern philosophies and styles. I really love when movies defy all genre conventions, which is a major strength of Jim Jarmusch. The combination of RZA’s hip hop score with the imagery of Ghost Dog practicing with his katana on a rooftop in the middle of the city is just super cool, and when he’s comparing the philosophy of the samurai with the violent revenge he’s getting on the mafia also makes for a really cool blend. Now, the problem with having all this stuffed into one movie that isn’t even 2 hours means that some stuff is lost or pushed aside. Not a lot of Ghost Dog’s past is explored and a lot of side characters are just pushed away for long periods of time when a little bit of development would have went a long way. I know this story is more about Ghost Dog, but having certain characters stand out more would have made his actions have more consequence. It’s a small price to pay for fitting in all of the cool stuff that is prominent.

Ghost Dog is a really good example of the kind of writing that Jarmusch does and why it’s really a style all his own. There’s a lot of really cool bits in this movie that shouldn’t be under appreciated. There’s a Haitian character that doesn’t speak or understand a word of English, but he’s also Ghost Dog’s best friend even though they don’t understand each other. There’s also a gangster on Ghost Dog’s hit list that has a passion for Public Enemy, especially Flavor Flav. This whole movie is filled with these strange moments that make it feel surreal, but also down to earth since everyday life can be surreal. Jarmusch is as much a writer as he is a director, and it really shows in this movie.

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai is definitely a cool and well made movie, and it’s one that should be remembered for being something so unique. It’s a blending of so many different genres and themes and styles while also being an in depth character study. I just wish it was a little bit longer. There’s a lot of different characters and elements to the story that could have been explored a little bit more. Still, what does remain is a very cool story about a one of a kind character. It’s definitely worth a watch or three.

Final Grade: B

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Rampart – Review

17 Dec

Throughout my movie watching career, there have been collaborations between certain actors and film makers that work so well it should be illegal. For the sake of this review, the collaboration is between writer/director Oren Moverman and his go to actor Woody Harrelson. In 2010, Harrelson was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Moverman’s heart wrenching drama, The Messenger. The two were then reunited 2012, along with co-writer James Ellroy (best known for L.A. Confidential), with Rampart. The performances and overall story in this film are really something to behold, but the overcrowding of subplots and an over the top artsy fartsy style almost ruined the movie for me.

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The year is 1999 and Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a police officer in the Rampart Division of the LAPD. Unfortunately for the people of Los Angeles, Brown is a racist, homophobic, and generally intolerant bigot who will resort to violence whenever he wants to to get the information he wants. After he is caught almost beating a suspect to death on tape, Officer Dave Brown’s life soon starts spiraling out of control. His ex-wives who are also sisters (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) want nothing more to do with him while Assistant District Attorney Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver) starts pushing him towards an early retirement. As if that wasn’t enough, Brown becomes embroiled in an affair with an attorney working against him named Linda (Robin Wright) but also gets into more trouble after getting bad advice from his mentor, Hartshorn (Ned Beatty), which ends in a brutal murder.

I think the main reason to see Rampart is to see all of the amazing talent at work. Harrelson gives what may be the best performance of the year. It probably even beats his work on True Detective, especially since there is so much more corruption and hostility flowing through his character’s veins. A lot of the other actors I feel get under utilized though. For example, Steve Buscemi is only in one scene and I wanted to see him a lot more. Ice Cube also only shows up towards the end even though his character had a lot of great potential. After Harrelson, I think the next performance you really have to pay attention to is Ben Foster’s. Foster is one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors and his small role in Rampart and his leading role in The Messenger proves he’s capable of a lot more than he is given.

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James Ellroy is a master at writing in the crime genre. He has written plenty of murder mysteries and dramas while also penning screenplays and having involvement in documentaries. That being said, both Ellroy and Moverman went a little overboard in Rampart. The story of a corrupt cop finally facing his demons and getting what he has coming to him is great, and they show his breakdown wonderfully. The problem is that there is way too much crammed into this movie. It’s like they tried to take everything from a long novel and stuff it into a movie that’s less than two hours. Characters are underused, plot lines are unresolved, and some of the development feels either forced or nonexistent. Luckily, the crux of the story is there and really good. This is more of a character study of Dave Brown and Ellroy and Moverman hit the nail on the head when it came to that area of the screenplay.

Another major complain that I have with Rampart is that Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski went a little overboard with the art design. There’s a motif throughout the film that Dave Brown slowly begins disappearing. The start of the movie has him at the forefront of the action going on onscreen and while the movie goes on, he becomes framed behind objects and obscured. That’s an example of great artistic design. On the flip side, there’s a scene where the camera keeps cutting and spinning during a meeting and it’s not only unnecessary, but looks stupid. I get what they were trying to do, but it just didn’t work and only succeeded at annoying me. If Moverman and Bukowsky just toned it down a little bit, the film would have been all the better for it.

I almost loved Rampart and at the same time I almost hated it. I really don’t know how else to explain how I feel about this movie. On one hand it tells a really complex story about a man who refuses to change who he is and has to suffer for it, and on the other hand it’s an overstuffed movie that seemed to be going nowhere at parts. I feel equal on these two sentiments, so Rampart really just left me baffled. I wanna say give it a watch, but I can’t see anyone really coming out of it without a lot of questions that need answering.

Monster – Review

13 Dec

Between 1989 and 1990, a Daytona Beach prostitute named Aileen Wuornos killed 7 men in cold blood. While Wuornos isn’t America’s first female serial killer, she is the first one that got this amount of attention thanks to the media and her reputation as psychotic. It goes without saying that there have been a few documentaries, books, and other works dedicated to Wuornos, but none have had the impact that Patty Jenkins’ 2003 film Monster had. Instead of focusing on the crimes themselves, Jenkins decided to focus on Aileen as a human and what drove her to do such horrible things. If that doesn’t sound interesting enough to grab your attention, Charlize Theron’s transformation into Wuornos surely is.

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Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) is a prostitute working the streets in Florida who has just about completely given up on her life, that is until she meets a woman named Selby Wall (Christina Ricci). Selby is a lesbian and has strong feeling for the straight Wuornos, who at first turns her down, but soon finds out just how nice it is to be loved and the two start an unlikely relationship. Money soon becomes tight after Aileen decides to quit being a prostitute, so she hits the streets once again but instead of sleeping with anyone she begins to murder them and steal their money and their cars. Aileen feels this is all justifiable since she believes that all of these men are going to rape her, but her story begins falling apart and soon she won’t be able to keep this cold blooded secret from Selby or law enforcement.

I’m gonna start with the weakest part of this movie so I can dedicate the rest of this review to what is so overwhelmingly positive. The narrative flow of Monster is very weak and makes it kinda hard to follow at times. Aileen Wuornos killed people between 1989 and 1990, but there is no indication as to how much time has passed between scenes. It could be an entire year of 3 weeks for all I know. If you’re making a movie about a very specific amount of time, it’s important that the audience feels that this amount of time has passed. By the end of the movie, I didn’t really feel like I’ve been with the characters for over a year. This is actually a pretty major complaint since it actually affected how the movie flowed and made the overall narrative feel pretty choppy.

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But really, what is the main reason anyone is really interested in seeing Monster for? It’s obviously to see what is one of the best onscreen performances you will ever see. I don’t even know if Charlize Theron was actually in this movie. There was no evidence onscreen that she was ever there. Theron completely succeeds at transforming herself into Aileen Wuornos. Not only is the make up applied perfect, but also the fact that she gained a decent amount of weight and mimicked Wuornos’ facial expressions and ticks in a creepily authentic way. It’s an almost incomparable performance that, to me, should make Theron one of the most respected actors working in Hollywood. While I really can’t say enough about Theron’s performance, I also have to give a lot of credit to Christina Ricci for giving a performance on the exact opposite end of the spectrum. She’s a timid, almost pathetic, character that is played out wonderfully.

Something else this film succeeds in is putting an interesting twist on the cinematic views of a serial killer. Many films make their serial killer subjects, whether they be real or not, into something inhuman. What Patty Jenkins does with Monster is show Aileen Wuornos as a tragic human being. Make no mistake, though. Jenkins in no way condones or tries to defend what Wuornos did, but she does sprinkle a theme concerning circumstance and environment into the film. This kind of puts this movie into an interesting sort of category where it doesn’t focus on the horrors of the murders, but the horrors of this woman’s life and actions.

Narratively, Monster may not be the strongest movie out there, but this film is ultimately a character study. Charlize Theron gets so deep into her role as Aileen Wuornos, it’s truly unsettling, but it’s also a relief that Patty Jenkins showed a different kind of side to what we normally see in films about serial killers. Everyone will agree that what Wuornos did was despicable and wrong, but what was done to her was also despicable and wrong and, especially in a time when there are more and more mass killings, maybe this is a good topic to talk about.

Bad Lieutenant – Review

6 Feb

Abel Ferrara is one of those film makers that you either love or you hate. Some people may call his movies smutty or exploitive, but there are others who call him a true artist with a firm grasp on the medium. In my opinion, Ferrara takes exploitation movies to a more artistic level. I’ve already reviewed his 1990 film King of New York, but now I will be looking at what is objectively called his best movie. It goes without saying that it’s his 1992 crime film Bad Lieutenant.

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The Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel) is not exactly the kind of cop anyone wants to deal with. He seems a little rough around the edges, but he’s more than meets the eye. He’s violent, addicted to all sorts of drugs, and gambles away most of his money. He seems to have the year’s World Series all figured out, and begins betting everything he has into the game. During all of this, he is also investigating the rape of a young nun (Frankie Thorn), but this particular case gets him thinking about his own actions and what may be the only chance he has at redemption. As his gambling and drug abuse worsens, he is pushed over his limits and begins to lose track of his own life and the parameters of his enforcement of the law.

Before I started watching Bad Lieutenant, I had it in my head that this was going to be a straightforward crime film where the Lieutenant was going to have to catch the guys who raped the nun, and along the way we would see him engage in all of his dark, illegal activities. It’s actually the other way around, in a sense. We actually see the Lieutenant practically destroy his life with drugs and gambling, and sometimes he moves on the case, but not too often. This is more of a character study than it is a straightforward narrative.

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That being said, I do wish there was more of a story. There is some semblance of a plot, but a lot of the movie is just the Lieutenant on the job in the seediest parts of New York City as he gets into all sorts of depraved things. The depravity does reach an all time low in Bad Lieutenant, and there were time that I was surprised that the character went as far as he did. He’s a reprehensible human being, but also very interesting. Still, as cool as his character is, I wanted to see more from the movie. It felt a lot longer than it actually was because not a whole hell of a lot happens by the end of the movie. I guess part of this is because I went into it expecting a more straightforward movie and wasn’t really expecting a movie as wandering as this, if that makes sense.

Harvey Keitel does do an outstanding job as the Lieutenant. That same year he starred in Quentin Tarantino’s first film Reservoir Dogs, but his performance in that just doesn’t match the visceral intensity that he displays here. It was said by the people making this film that Keitel dove really deep into this character and Ferrara left him a lot of room for experimentation and improvisation. Now, the stuff that the Lieutenant gets into, if I hadn’t made it quite clear before, is reprehensible and by the end of shooting, crew member said it was almost hard to watch Keitel get so into character.

It would be easy to call Bad Lieutenant a piece of trashy exploitation, but whoever says that would be sorely mistaken. This is a beautifully shot movie filled with disgusting people and places. Abel Ferrara has a way of filming dirty urban environments and the characters that inhabit them with such a gritty style, and rare moments of true beauty, that it’s hard not to feel like you’re really in the movie with the characters. Now that I know what it’s all about, Bad Lieutenant deserves a second viewing from me, but this movie is not everyone’s cup of tea. Still, it has the hitting power of a Louisville slugger and is as loud as a magnum fired point blank, so if you can stomach the content check out Bad Lieutenant.