Movie Project #46: Dead Man [1995]

Due to the surprising success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a part two for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

Dead Man [1995]

Dead Man [1995]
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Genre: Drama/Fantasy/Western
Starring: Johnny Depp, Gary Farmer, Lance Henriksen, Robert Mitchum, John Hurt, and Gabriel Byrne
Running Time: 121 minutes

“Do you know my poetry?”

Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, shot entirely in black-and-white and labeled a “psychedelic Western” by the director himself, is unlike any film I have seen. What starts out as a familiar Western plotline — a foreigner arrives in an unwelcoming new town and gets in trouble — quickly flips itself on its head and turns into an absurd existential journey.

Johnny Depp stars as William Blake, who we quickly learn is a “dead man” even if he doesn’t know it yet. An accountant from Cleveland, Blake rides by train all the way out to the frontier town of Machine where he has been promised a lucrative new job. It’s clear upon arrival that Blake is woefully out of place. He shows up in a preposterous checkered suit, and he is nearly laughed out of the company building by the business manager (John Hurt). It turns out the job position has been filled, and even after appealing to the company’s truculent owner, John Dickinson (Robert Mitchum, in his final film performance), Blake walks away empty-handed.

Dead Man [1995]

Things only get worse from there. Blake somehow manages to bed a woman, only to have her sulking ex-boyfriend (Gabriel Byrne) show up afterward. In an act of self defense, William shoots the man, getting himself shot in the process. The bad news continues as it is revealed that this was the son of Dickinson, and the wealthy business owner hires a posse of hitmen to snuff out the accountant.

While on the run, Blake meets a large Native American guide, Nobody (Gary Farmer), who attempts to help him come to terms with his impending death. It is from this point forward where the film takes a surreal turn, as Nobody takes Blake on a journey of spiritual enlightenment. They meet some bizarre characters along the way (including an unforgettable group of mountain men played by Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton and Jared Harris), and we are kept up to speed on the hitmen via seemingly random interludes. The film fades in and out of the paths of each side, much like Blake goes in and out of consciousness.

Dead Man [1995]

Quite frankly, there’s a lot to take in, and it can get difficult to piece it altogether. By all accounts, this seems to be a film in which multiple viewings are necessary to get the full effect. Critics were divided upon its release — Roger Ebert famously gave this 1 1/2 stars, while Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote an entire book on the subject — but it has built a cult following since then.

I can’t say I’m entirely on board with the film, but I loved the cast, led by Johnny Depp’s meek protrayal of William Blake. Gary Farmer makes for an intriguing spiritual guide, a more contemporary take when compared to the early Western time period. The supporting cast is nothing short of phenomenal, with memorable performances from the likes of Mitchum, Hurt, Iggy Pop, Thornton, Harris, Alfred Molina, and even Crispin Glover. Throw in Neil Young’s improvisational guitar score and you have all the makings of a bona fide cult hit.

My first impression of Dead Man is mixed, but there are enough ideas in place that make me believe I could enjoy it more on a second viewing. I may need to go on my own spiritual quest beforehand, however.

6/10

Quick Reviews: Detour [1945], Ghost Dog [1999], Series 7 [2001], The Secret World of Arrietty [2010], Mass Effect [2007]

This has been an unexpectedly busy month, but I still found time to do a new batch of mini-reviews:

MOVIES

Detour [1945]
Detour [1945]
This short Film Noir (runtime: 68 minutes) has gained a lot of respect over the years, and rightfully so. Tom Neal stars as Al, a piano musician who decides to hitchhike from New York City to Hollywood in order to meet up with his starry-eyed dame. Along the way, he gets a ride from a well-off bookie in a convertible. This is where shit hits the fan. While taking a turn driving, Al pulls over to put up the top during a rainstorm. It is at this time that he notices the bookie has passed out, and upon opening the car door, his new friend falls out and hits his head on a rock. Al freaks out, takes his wallet and car, and continues on to Hollywood. He meets the femme fatale of the film, Vera (Ann Savage), and boy is she a cold-hearted woman! She is easily one of the nastiest women I have seen in a noir, and poor Al just can’t catch a break. It’s amazing just how much plot was able to get crammed into this brief film, and it is worthy of its praise as one of the more underrated Film Noirs. I could have done without the tacked-on final scene, but this is an enjoyably dark and gritty way to spend an hour. 8/10

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai [1999]
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai [1999]
Talk about an unorthodox badass. Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) is an inner-city self-trained samurai, a guy who acts as a hitman and lives in a pigeon coop. His best friend is an immigrant who doesn’t speak a lick of English. Ghost Dog is a weird dude, but he is lethal with a weapon, and he isn’t afraid of anyone despite getting tangled up in some nasty mafia business. This Jim Jarmusch film is a little slow in spots, but its odd humor (i.e. an old mob gangster belting out some Flava Flav jams) and killer RZA-curated soundtrack work greatly in its favor. 7.5/10

Series 7: The Contenders
Series 7: The Contenders [2001]
This dark satire of reality TV is equal parts Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. The concept is that six contestants are chosen via a ‘random’ lottery, with the ultimate goal being to kill off the other participants and remain the last person standing. Director Daniel Minahan, a former reality TV producer himself, does a terrific job making the movie feel like an extended marathon of an actual reality show, complete with Will Arnett as the narrator. The movie has a cool premise, and the production fits the theme perfectly, but it never really digs into anything meaningful. Yeah, reality TV sucks, and it’s fun to bash it, but the spoof could have had more of a bite to it. Still, an enjoyable enough movie, and a mindless way to spend 87 minutes. 6/10

The Secret World of Arrietty [2010]
The Secret World of Arrietty [2010]
Studio Ghibli’s latest feature is a somber and melancholy affair, yet remains charming at the same time. Arrietty (voiced by Bridgit Mendler) is a “borrower”, a little person who lives under the floorboards of a house with her parents (voiced by real-life couple Amy Poehler and Will Arnett). They make a living by borrowing unneeded supplies from the human beings (i.e. sugar cubes, tissue paper, etc.). Arrietty forms an unlikely friendship with a young terminally ill human boy, Shawn (David Henrie), but these types of interactions are risky for the borrowers, who could lose everything if discovered. The plot plays with our curiosity, but its slow-moving pace may not fare well with young children, and it takes too long to get to the meat of the story. The animation is gorgeous, as expected, but the soundtrack is just cheesy and feels out of place. Arrietty is a decent movie, but does not compare to the high marks previously set by Studio Ghibli. 7/10

VIDEO GAMES

Mass Effect [Xbox 360, 2007]
Mass Effect [Xbox 360, 2007]
After starting and stopping my campaign a couple times, I finally sat down and played through the entirety of Mass Effect. Yeah, I am quite a few years late to the party, but better late than never. This sci-fi action/RPG epic was a lot of fun, though it started off slow as hell. It wasn’t until I left the Citadel, the huge political space station, that the game picked up. I became hooked once I was able to explore the galaxy and began visiting untouched planets. Driving the Mako vehicle was a bit of a chore, to put it mildly, but the rewards of new side quests and items made it worth it. It was a lot of fun to explore character relationships (I romanced Liara) and make an effort to either be “good” or “bad” (I opted for Paragon until the very end — let’s just say I wasn’t a fan of the Citadel). Mass Effect isn’t a perfect game by any means — the freezing and drops in frame rate were especially annoying — but the great story made this a fun experience anyway. Can’t wait to play through the rest of the trilogy. 8/10

Have you guys seen any of these movies or played this video game? What do you think of them?