Thursday, January 28, 2016

Down by Law (1986)

September 20, 1986, (limited) release date
Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Screenplay by Jim Jarmusch
Music by John Lurie and Tom Waits
Edited by Melody London
Cinematography by Robby Müller

Tom Waits as Zack
John Lurie as Jack
Roberto Benigni as Roberto
Nicoletta Braschi as Nicoletta
Ellen Barkin as Laurette
Billie Neal as Bobbie
Rockets Redglare as Gig
Vernel Bagneris as Preston
Timothea as Julie
L.C. Drane as L.C.
Joy N. Houck, Jr., as Detective Mandino
Carrie Lindsoe as young girl
Ralph Joseph as a detective
Richard Boes as a detective
Dave Petitjean as Cajun detective

Produced by PolyGram Pictures, Island Pictures, Black Snake
Distributed by Universal Pictures from 2011 to the present

The blurb on the back of the DVD from the Criterion Collection states, in part, “Described by director Jim Jarmusch as a ‘neo-beat-noir-comedy,’ Down by Law is part nightmare and part fairy tale . . . .” The film does start out a bit nightmarish, but by the end, I was completely charmed by the story in general and Roberto in particular.

Can Down by Law be called a neo-noir? I think I could be convinced. The fact that it’s shot in black and white helps, but that’s not enough. It’s a great film and well worth seeing. The writing, the characters, the plot, the dialogue, the setting—all are fantastic. I had no idea where the plot was heading, and I loved the surprises along the way. It’s almost impossible to characterize Down by Law, which I think is really one of its many strengths.

The music score is also perfect for this film: discordant jazz and blues that, to me, represents the offbeat plot and characters. The music was written by John Lurie, who plays Jack. The songs “Jockey Full of Bourbon” and “Tango Till They’re Sore” are from Tom Waits’s Rain Dogs album; Waits plays Zack. The music score—the discordant jazz—is another reason to call this film neo-noir.

(This blog post about Down by Law contains spoilers.)

Roberto’s difficulty with the English language is the basis for most of the humor in this “neo-beat-noir-comedy.” For example, there’s a very funny scene in the prison cell when Roberto takes out his self-styled notepad-slash-dictionary of English phrases and points out that he knows the word scream in English: “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.” He starts chanting the sentence, and Jack and Zack join him. Before long, all the inmates start chanting the same line over and over again, which finally brings in the prison guards to restore quiet.

Roberto and Zack actually meet on the street before their incarceration, and the scene between them is wonderful. Roberto is carrying his notepad, and he consults it so he can converse with Zack. Again, language plays a central role. They part ways because Zack is not very friendly to Roberto, but Zack cannot get one of Roberto’s phrases out of his head: It becomes a lyric he incorporates into a song. Their exchange is amusing, and I thought the scene was also an interesting insight into the creative process: how Zack borrows Roberto’s phrasing and uses it to his songwriting advantage.

After Roberto, Jack, and Zack escape from the Orleans Parish Prison, Roberto looks for food in Luigi’s Tin Top and meets Nicoletta. He and Nicoletta fall in love instantly, and Roberto forgets that his two friends Jack and Zack are waiting outside to make sure that the coast is clear (that is, no cops around). The three men have seen nothing but cypress trees and swamp water for days, but they’re worried cops are lurking in this eatery that’s propped by the side of a dirt road.

Roberto loses his homemade notepad of English phrases during the escape from prison, but it doesn’t seem like he’ll need it once he meets Nicoletta. Both of them speak Italian and broken English, and Roberto has no plans to leave Nicoletta alone in Luigi’s Tin Top. I read online that the actors Roberto Benigni and Nicoletta Braschi fell in love off the set, too.

For me, Down by Law is a winner all around. The film does include some extended time in a cramped prison cell. It does include a jail break. The main characters are on the run from the law for about half the film. And there’s the black-and-white film and the jazzy, bluesy score. Maybe it really is a neo-noir. I’d be happy to let others convince me!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Criss Cross (1949)

January 12, 1949, release date
Directed by Robert Siodmak
Screenplay by Daniel Fuchs
Based on the 1934 novel Criss Cross by Don Tracy
Music by Miklós Rózsa
Cinematography by Franz Planer

Burt Lancaster as Steve Thompson
Yvonne De Carlo as Anna Dundee
Dan Duryea as Slim Dundee
Stephen McNally as Det. Lt. Pete Ramirez
Esy Morales and His Rhumba Band
Tom Pedi as Vincent
Percy Helton as Frank
Alan Napier as Finchley
Griff Barnett as Pop
Meg Randall as Helen
Richard Long as Slade Thompson
Joan Miller as the barstool patron
Edna Holland as Mrs. Thompson
John Doucette as Walt
Marc Krah as Mort

Universal Studios

Criss Cross: Trapped Cinematically by Windows and Doors

I have seen Criss Cross twice, and the first time I saw it, I was struck immediately by its use of windows and doors to show how Steve, Anna, and Slim, the main characters, are trapped by fate. I’ll get to the windows and doors in a bit.

First, what an opening! The fly-in cinematography is like watching a series of paintings. The aerial shot behind the credits is spectacular for its blacks, whites, lights, and all its shades of gray. The fly-in isn’t exactly smooth (probably because of 1940s technology), but who cares with a cityscape that looks this gorgeous? When the camera gets closer to the parking lot, the scene cuts to the gleaming cars lined like a series of dark and white chocolates in a candy box. The dramatic music tells me this isn’t going to end well. (But then I knew that as soon as I saw Dan Duryea’s name in the credits!) And then we see Yvonne DeCarlo and Burt Lancaster embracing and hiding out in the parking lot, proclaiming their undying love for one another. The close-up of DeCarlo (bet money and chocolate on her playing the femme fatale) is especially effective, I thought. She talks right to the camera and tries to convince the viewers, too.

(This blog post about Criss Cross contains spoilers.)

This film, released almost exactly sixty-seven years ago, is about a heist and a love triangle gone horribly wrong. The fly-in opening of the film foreshadows the aerial shot of the armored truck as Steve drives it to its destination, to the meeting point where Slim Dundee and his gang are waiting. The movement in that later shot, with Steve driving the truck, is almost dizzying. In fact, these two instances in the movie seem to be the only times that the action and/or the characters are unrestrained.

When Steve first leaves the bank in the armored truck and heads toward the planned meeting point, the camera shot shows the truck leaving the bank and moving up an incline toward the street. The truck is framed by the lines of the building and the window panes, which gives the impression of being trapped. It’s another hint that events will end badly.

When Steve is in the hospital after the bank heist, his anxiety about Slim’s desire for revenge is heightened by the shadows crossing the transom window over the door and by the shadow on the hallway wall that is reflected in the mirror in Steve’s room. It turns out that Steve’s fear is well-founded: He is hijacked out of his hospital bed, but he bribes his hijacker to take him to Anna.

Steve and Anna are reunited at a bungalow in a meeting that both arranged earlier in the film. The shot of Steve at the window (framed/trapped again by the window panes) is beautiful with the ocean behind him, but Anna guesses that the driver who brought Steve is taking his money but acting as an informant for Slim. She packs, tells Steve that everyone (including her) has to take care of him- or herself (that’s the way it is in this noir world), and runs out the door. She leaves the door open, and the shot shows Steve again framed by the window behind him and now by the door frame in front of him, too. Anna runs back through the doorway into the room screaming Steve’s name, and the camera shows the open door, this time from Anna’s and Steve’s perspective: The door frame shows nothing but the black night. Then Slim appears in the doorway with a gun and shoots them both. He turns around, and this time Slim is the one framed in the doorway, listening to an approaching police siren. When he runs, we see the bodies of Anna and Steve.

What an ending! Anna’s and Steve’s bodies are arranged like a sculpture and are framed by the window, even in death. It reminded me a little bit of the Pietà by Michelangelo, but with both of the figures dead and the male and female positions in “reverse,” so to speak: Steve is the one “cradling” Anna. Slim is likely being picked up by the police off-screen, or maybe he has to go into hiding indefinitely.

No matter how you interpret the ending for Slim Dundee, all the main characters—Slim, Steve, and Anna—are trapped by fate in Criss Cross. The cinematography emphasizes the role of fate and does it beautifully.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Winter's Bone (2010)

January 21, 2010 (Sundance), June 11, 2010, release date
Directed by Debra Granik
Screenplay by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini
Based on Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
Music by Dickon Hinchliffe
Edited by Affonso Gonçalves
Cinematography by Michael McDonough

Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly
John Hawkes as Teardrop Dolly (Ree’s uncle)
Lauren Sweetser as Gail
Garret Dillahunt as Sheriff Baskin
Dale Dickey as Merab
Shelley Waggener as Sonya
Kevin Breznahan as Little Arthur
Ashlee Thompson as Ashlee Dolly (Ree’s younger sister)
Tate Taylor as Satterfield
Sheryl Lee as April
Cody Shiloh Brown as Floyd
Isaiah Stone as Sonny Dolly (Ree’s younger brother)

Distributed by Roadside Attractions

Winter’s Bone may not seem like an obvious choice for neo-noir. It’s nothing like the postwar films and classic noirs shot decades ago. It doesn’t take place in an urban setting, and the characters do not seem particularly sophisticated—until I realized that they are at home in this landscape and know how to get by in it, and I don’t. Winter’s Bone may not be a typical noir film in some respects, but many elements work together to create a sense of dread about Ree Dolly’s search for her missing father.

The commentary on the DVD from the director, Debra Granik, and the cinematographer, Michael McDonough, fill in some details about the film’s production, but it’s not necessary to hear what they have to say about making the film to understand its mood. Filming occurred in winter, and the on-location shooting “looks cold”: no leaves on the trees, cold hard earth. The almost constant gray overcast of an Ozark winter seems to bleed into the rock and dirt that make up the landscape, the local music on the soundtrack emphasizes the fear and uncertainty (“local” meaning from southern Missouri), and the inscrutable code of honor set by the inhabitants is broken when it suits them.

In the middle of Winter’s Bone is a sequence of shots filmed among the trees and woods in the area. The sequence is both majestic and unnerving: The woods are beautiful, but the soundtrack picks up the live wood creaking eerily in the wind. No humans are shown in each shot of the sequence, but the land can be called home only by people who know it well.

Southern Missouri is an area that has its own issues with crime (murder; conspiracy to cover up a crime; the manufacturing, selling, and taking of drugs) and violence. Ree Dolly wants to find out what happened to her father, a meth cooker, because she needs to keep her family’s house and land. The family will lose it all if Ree’s father Jessup doesn’t show up for his court date, and no one seems to know what happened to him.

Ree is alone with huge responsibilities. She is only seventeen, and she is responsible for taking care of her mother (who doesn’t appear to be sane any more) and two younger siblings. Relatives will not help her (because they might have something to hide?). A local code of honor seems to function in the role of fate: Certain outcomes are inevitable if Ree continues to flaunt the code of honor and thus tempt fate. Ree is afraid of many members of her own extended family. They threaten her and then make good on their threats. Various extended family members betray Ree and her immediate family. Their loyalties to her as her near and distant relatives have clear limits, although she is unsure what those limits are at first.

Local people who commit crimes and cover them up are eventually able to put themselves in Ree’s position and to offer help. Knowledge of the terrain and the local customs finally allows Ree to work with some of the other characters so that she can help her mother and her siblings. Ree lies to law enforcement about the help she receives in finding her father: More crimes are committed to keep her and her family on their land.

Like many films noir, especially neo-noir films, Ree and other characters in Winter’s Bone are complicated. They do what they must to survive. Ree may be a teenager, but she is facing an almost crushing weight of responsibilities. She is not an innocent victim and that is made clear practically from the start of the film. Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Ree is one of the best of her career so far, and I found myself rooting for her character from beginning to end.