RIORI Redux: Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers” Revisited


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The Players…

Bill Murray, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange and Tilda Swinton, with Jeffery Wright, Julie Delpy, Chloe Sevigny and Christopher McDonald.


The Story…

After being dumped by yet another girlfriend, serial bachelor Don figures simply he’ll be alone forever. It’s probably easier this way. But when an anonymous letter arrives one day and tells him he has a 19-year-old son out there, Don sets out on a cross-country journey to confront his past—and a few old flames in the process. Mom’s out there, too, you know.


The Rant (2013)

First off, I want to apologize for the last installment. It was hastily written under the influence of alcohol and hubris. Mostly alcohol. Also having one of your most fave rock n’ roll icons die of cancer would sour anyone’s day. If I were a professional, I would say that the last installment was very unprofessional. But I’m not, so I’ll simply say sorry for being a dickhead. Okay? Good.

Anyway, on with the show.

Relationships are hard. Believe me, I know. I’m in one. Sometimes I can recommend it. Other times, meh. But here’s a relationship that hopefully none of you will ever have. One with yourself. It’s ugly, and gets stale really fast. That being said, this movie did not clean up at the box office. Blame the director.

Jim Jarmusch has been long derided or complemented (depending on who you ask) as an indie darling. The long tracking shots. The signature fade out. The quirkiness. Jarmusch has never made any big coin from his films. His reputation almost precludes this. And I’m a fan of his work. Flowers is a pseudo art house film, not meant for all audiences despite how charming and unintentionally funny Murray is.

Not to mention that I’m a fan of Bill Murray, especially his “late period” stuff, when he hung up screwball for leading man as average Joe. If Murray here were anymore disconnected, his head would fall off. He is as wry as ever, lugging around that look on his face that screams befuddlement and self-absorption. Carrying that ridiculous bouquet of pink flowers (get it?) as his calling card, going door-to-door to all his exes, each one getting worse and worse than previous? It all but practically shouts “kick me.” And Bill is a delightful stooge with a bullseye taped to his ass. It’s really all an exercise in vanity as well as hopelessness. You never get a feeling of rooting for Don, and you don’t have to. He’s not likeable in any immediate way, but as I said before, it’s Murray, and he’s always charming.

Rounding out the cast is a flighty Sharon Stone, a vacant Frances Conroy, an aloof Jessica Lange and an outright hostile Tilda Swinton (whom I couldn’t even recognize at first glance). It’s as if each woman represents a chapter in Don’s life of bad breakups and past mistakes. In fact, that’s exactly what it is. No hidden subtext there. As a tonic, Jeffery Wright is hilarious as Don’s “life coach” and guide on his journey of self-discovery and madness. I don’t know what accent that is he’s using, but it’s oddly appropriate.

This whole movie has a surrealist Wes Anderson kinda feeling, maybe because of Murray. Little touches here and there painting different flavors of bizarre domesticity play out like a reel of Don’s history of crawling up his own ass. Maybe this film is about self-discovery. Maybe it’s a cautionary tale. Maybe it’s the oddest road trip movie ever filmed. I don’t know. What I’ve learned after watching Flowers is this: don’t chase down your past. What you may find is nothing more than yourself. That can be ugly.


Rant Redux (2019)…

Kinda like but not really the glib rant redux for David Fincher’s underrated Zodiac, I don’t have much to revise regarding Flowers. It helped the above draft was short and direct, as well as on point. Upon re-reading it however, another question about casting popped into my head. A seed was planted in my retread of What Just Happened? not that long ago. The question I had is thus: why do big stars choose smaller roles in even smaller films? Like with Happened, De Niro is a legacy actor and pairing him with Levinson (whose star, admittedly has dulled) felt a tad odd, if not angular. Despite the slow pace and overwrought storyline, De Niro was is fine shape and Levinson still had his subtle, nasty edge cutting a satire. Also despite Happened was released to little fanfare and even littler reception it did (to me) open up an inner dialogue. One between my cinematic sensibilities and what feeds that rot. It was more interesting than the movie, I figured.

Why do big stars opt for small roles with small directors? Wait. That’s not quite accurate. Jim Jarmusch is in the upper echelon of “indie” directors. Wes Anderson would not have a career without Jarmusch. Even though Jim is relegated to left of center, he’s known, revered and always engagingly weird. That’s his signature as much as his snowy pompadour. De Niro teaming with Levinson, in the final analysis, isn’t too far a cry. Bill Murray under the gentle, clutching wing of Jarmusch is a bit more than that.

Flowers is a dark rom-com, to be sure, and Jarmusch is not foreign to the bitter humor that drives his muse. He’s kinda like David Lynch with a sense of humor, except said humor stems from Andy Kaufmann’s “the joke’s on you” kinda humor. Whatever funny Jarmusch puts on the screen it can be as amusing as it is cringey. Flowers was no different, and in Murray Jim found his Bartelby, awash in doubt and blissful ignorance. If one considers it, Murray’s Don is an offshoot of his Bob Harris character in Lost In Translation five years earlier. The themes are similar: Bob is estranged from his wife, alone in a foreign land and desperate to reach out to someone. Scarlett Johannson got her breakout role (and only role worth the time of day if you’d ask me. Please, don’t) which was good, and Murray’s desperate Bob earned him an Oscar nod (which he was visibly profane when he didn’t win. Bill, it just doesn’t matter).

Flowers is a spiritual cousin, but unlike Bob, Don is Don. Murray is Murray, lovable hangdog in all its glory. While Coppola did admirable work coaxing conflicted drama from Murray in Lost, Jarmusch just let Murray wander. It worked quite well, perhaps better than in Lost. And I think that’s it, why big stars tackle small projects. De Niro’s dyed-in-wool style is intense, bleak, loudmouthed and darkly funny. Having aforementioned hangdog is well out of his wheelhouse, which is why I think Method actors take smaller roles. It could be to stretch their range, to try something weird that Big Hollywood would deem “unprofitable,” or just to have a little fun and f*ck around some. Getting off the radar allows a lot of stretching out and dusting off shoulders, Kayne-style.

Yeah, so that’s my hypothesis. Big stars opt for “small” roles in “small” films so to flex their thespian muscles as well as decompress. Toss around the medicine ball before bench pressing again. Both Flowers and Happened are good illustrations of that practice, I feel. Makes for better roles afterwards, I hope.

De Niro’s next role after HappenedRighteous Kill. Well…

Murray’s next role after Flowers: Garfield: A Tale Of Two Kitties. Umm…

It’s just a theory, after all.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: rent it. Again, Jarmusch’s films are decidedly not for everyone, especially those who have short attention spans. And Murray not being outwardly funny is also an acquired taste. Still, big names doing little things well stand for a lot these days. Consider the midget mathematician: it’s the little things that count.

I regret nothing much.


Next Installment…

We look through A Scanner Darkly once more and consider what the heck Richard Linklater was getting into.


 

RIORI Redux: David Fincher’s “Zodiac” Revisited


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The Players…

Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey, Jr, Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards, with Brian Cox, Charles Fleischer, Elias Koteas and John Caroll Lynch.


The Story…

A notorious serial killer known only as “The Zodiac” is on a creepy spree in and around the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s left several victims in his wake and taunts police of his motives with letters and ciphers mailed to newspapers. It’s only when crossword freak cartoonist Robert Greysmith accidentally cracks the Zodiac’s code that both the media and the police gets a lead. However, following the lesson of history, the case still remains one of San Francisco’s most infamous unsolved crimes.


The Rant (2013)

Let’s, you and I, talk about fear.

Okay, that line there is one of my favorites in the entire English language. I boosted it, not surprisingly, from an intro to one of Stephen King’s books. But still, let’s talk about fear, you and I. I’m not really talking about the fear of the unknown, although that’s a popular one and one of the most basal. I’m talking about the fear of being hunted. Like prey. Like you’re being followed. That liquid, paranoid panic you get at the base of your stomach. That you are one of a millions other souls our there that could, under the proper circumstances, end up no less that someone’s trophy. That eerie obsessed feeling, where the fight, flight or faint instinct should kick in at any moment. You want to hide, but there’s no place to go. You want to run, but you’re in the crosshairs. You are being watched, prodded, toyed with. Hunted. You are made to feel a victim of some fate breathing down your neck, almost literally. Haunted. The slight, breathless pants on your shoulder of a person or persons unknown that want to get you. Harm you. Even kill you.

For no apparent reason at all. You’re just prey. Game.

That’s what San Franciscans must’ve felt like back in the 1960’s when some hunter of men took to task terrorizing the Bay Area with the bizarre, groundless and still unsolved murders as the Zodiac killer. Part documentary, part psychological thriller, part one man’s obsession, Zodiac is David Fincher at the top of his game, carefully and quietly ratcheting up the dread level over two plus worthwhile hours.

It’s unfortunate that this film fell into the bracket of “poor box office” tallies.

Zodiac may have fallen victim to the “too intellectual” tag, or the long running time turned people away (seems most audiences have only enough of a fluid attention span to fill a thimble), or how the film moves at its own languid pace, possibly inviting boredom in some. I don’t know. Just conjecture. One thing this guy is sure of: Zodiac is a great, thrilling and sometimes rather scary film.

Dread is the watchword of this film. Not terror, per se, and definitely not serial killer horror like, say, The Silence of the Lambs. But dread. That looming fear of something horrible that could happen if you would let your guard down. Epitomizing this feeling is Robert Graysmith, portrayed by Gyllenhaal, a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle and avid puzzle wonk. Graysmith is the unlikely protagonist of this story (and also the real-life counterpart who wrote the book upon which the film is based), more or less tumbling over the Zodiac’s intentions by the anonymous threat letters that get mailed to the paper declaring the killer’s motives, intentions and nary a whit of his identity. Gyllenhaal plays skittish very well, like a kid on the outside of the club. That haunted look hangs on his face, exemplifying that dread as we the audience are meant to feel. As was said, Graysmith is puzzle geek, and when the Zodiac sends cryptic ciphers along with his threatening letters, the challenge of cracking the code becomes an obsession.

Greysmith’s aide-de-camp in this escapade is crime beat reporter, the effete and boozy Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr., in a role that somehow mirrors the character of Tony Stark he would portray a year later in 2008’s Iron Man). Cynical, crass and opportunistic, Avery plays the perfect foil to Graysmith’s boy scout like demeanor. Somehow they trade barbs with each other over the Zodiac’s motives and identity with each accompanying letter, as well as when the body count starts to rise. All of Zodiac’s intensions are posted to the Chronicle’s editors, leaving our intrepid newsies at the frontline of what the killer might do next.

Of course, all Avery and Graysmith can do is speculate and play around with screwy codices. On the frontline is Det. Dave Toschi, portrayed gamely by future Hulk Mark Ruffalo. He and his partner, Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are the cops that get the call about a murder of a cabbie in downtown San Fran, connecting it with the Zodiac killings. Ruffalo’s performance of Toschi is just great, unlike the wary wounded Graysmith, Ruffalo is the warm and steady straight man caught up in the mystery, just trying to do his job to nab the criminal at large. Ruffalo has the feeling of stability you need in this dreadful business in hopes that there will be an end to this mystery, even though the Zodiac case is still unsolved to this day.

Zodiac starts as a crime drama, and ends as a docudrama. The first act’s pacing feels a bit rushed, but it flows. For a crime investigation film, the pace has to be swift, but there’s a lot, a lot of info that needs to be core dumped on the audience to get what the hell is happening, and there’s a sort of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it velocity that zips by in the first act. Fincher’s films are almost always clinical pieces of technical exactness, and Zodiac is no exception. It has all the hallmarks of a Fincher film, from the muted color scheme to the surgical precision of the camera work. It makes for an excellent documentary film, as if cut for a PBS production, but with excellent acting and a bigger budget.

The core trio of actors all play well off each other, which is surprising considering how different each one’s personality is. Graysmith’s boy scout to Avery’s rake to Toschi’s procedural give the audience a united front of cracking the code of the Zodiac, so to speak. Each actor has his place in handling the mystery, and although it’s ostensibly Gyllenhaal’s show, Ruffalo’s treatment of the film is what kept me engaged.

Not to dismiss Gyllenhaal. He’s just so great in this. He brings that haunted innocence he used so well in Donnie Darko to the fore here. As Graysmith, he becomes so obsessed with uncovering the mystery of the Zodiac that he loses almost everything he holds dear, from his job to his family. He becomes his own pawn in the Zodiac’s game, almost to the point that Toschi seems to let Graysmith do his dirty work. Let the crazed kid hunt the identity of the hunter. The case dragged on for years with nary a break until it was all but swept under the rug. Graysmith’s crusade, Gyllenhaal’s obsession is what pushes the movie forward. The game.

The prey comment I made earlier may be the crux of the whole Zodiac m.o., both as crime and film. From what little I know about profiling serial killers, they all take some trophy, some winning from their prey. The Zodiac’s was the game. The toying with – hunting – other humans. Sport. The cryptic letters and ciphers. Game. Thumbing his nose at the authorities, taunting them, daring them to try and stop him. The short story “The Most Dangerous Game” is commented on often in the film, and is used as an analog for the killer’s motives. A key scene, and maybe the best in the movie, is the interview between Toschi and Zodiac suspect Arthur Leigh Allen. Allen has the history and hallmarks of a hunter, and dearly enjoys messing with the officer’s heads. Poking holes and creating new ones in the fabric of their investigation. This scene may be the lynchpin of the whole movie, if not the case at large. The play was the thing with the Zodiac. A game to play that ends up playing you. Making you question your safety, your security. Making you feel like prey.

Yes, Zodiac is a truly fine film, or rather three films in one. There’s the obvious mystery story, Graysmith’s Moby-Dick-like crusade and the game of the hunt. All three meld well into one very satisfying narrative, complete with all the custom touches of a masterful director at the wheel. Zodiac is a tight and sometimes harrowing journey, just like cat-and-mouse game the Zodiac put San Fransisco through some 40 years ago. Times of dread into paranoia into being haunted.

Or hunted.


Rant Redux (2019)…

Yeah, I got this one right out of the gate. This might’ve been a sign of me learning to not blog like some frothing yo-yo later on. Might.


The Revision…

Rent it or relent it? Sustained: rent it. Boom.


Next Installment…

We retool The Machinist (rimshot).