Tag Archives: jim jarmusch

Bill Murray Stories on Netflix

The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man is a documentary on Netflix about a curious phenomenon involving the comic actor who’s reinvented himself as a kind of trickster guru over the last decade.

“Bill Murray sightings” have been reported for many years. These are seemingly random incidents where Murray appears in unlikely places such as a kickball game, a college dorm, or at a random party. Filmmaker Tommy Avallone sets out to document these sightings and find out if they are real or simply bizarre urban legends.

These aren’t like typical celebrity sightings. Murray is always alone and simply blends into the local culture. As Avallone discovers, many of these stories are true. The documentary has footage from several of these events as people are shocked and overwhelmed to have a star in their midst.

You can look at Bill Murray Stories in a number of ways. On one level, it’s a study in the modern obsession with celebrity. Several of the interviewees have almost religious awe at having met Murray, saying how the experienced transformed their lives. This is touching yet also a bit disturbing.

On the other hand, Murray seems intent on providing inspiration and positive energy without the usual celebrity fanfare. Even if these encounters do make the celebrity gossip columns, Murray doesn’t really need the exposure at this point. He seems to be having a good time as he elevates the environment.

We’re also reminded that many of Murray’s films such as Razor’s Edge, Groundhog Day, Caddyshack and even Meatballs have a transformative message. In a strange way, Murray truly seems to be a latter-day Zen master who is now wandering the world inserting himself into the lives of ordinary people.

There’s also a clip from Coffee and Cigarettes, one of my favorite Jim Jarmusch films, which is a series of semi-improvised sketches with odd pairings of celebrities having random conversations. In one scene, Bill Murray plays himself pretending to be a waiter, referencing the whole Bill Murray Sighting phenomenon.

Possible Spoiler Alert: Bill Murray is never directly interviewed in this film. All the footage is taken from previous “sightings” and public appearances (such as one Murray made at a Comi-Con festival). This, however, is actually part of the appeal of Bill Murray Stories. If Avallone had full access to Murray, it would just seem like another insider piece. Instead, it’s more like a doc you might catch at an indie film festival.

Entertainment (2015) -directed by Rick Alverson

The title Entertainment is ironic, as it’s about someone who calls himself an entertainer but is anything but. Director Rick Alverson, whose previous work includes another darkly comic film, actually named The Comedy (2012), here attempts the thankless task of presenting an unlikable, often repulsive protagonist as he alienates everyone around him and eventually loses the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

I have a certain admiration for this film even though it’s not very enjoyable (nor is it meant to be). Gregg Turkington plays the nameless comic who performs in mostly empty rooms in desolate towns. Apparently, this is a character that Turkington plays regularly in stage performances. Having never seen this, however, I can only comment on the movie.

The “comic”  alternately insults the audience and delivers offensive jokes with no punch lines. At first, I found the movie funny in a perverse way; the comic’s bizarre idiosyncratic sense of humor, or what passes for that, has elements found in some of the work of Jim Jarmusch (e.g. Stranger Than Paradise) or the Coen Brothers (e.g. Barton Fink).

As the mostly plotless movie meanders along, however, it goes from dark comedy to something more like surreal tragedy -closer to David Lynch territory. As the comic leaves messages for his estranged daughter, we start to wonder if the daughter is even real. Similarly, when he witnesses a woman giving birth in a public bathroom, it’s uncertain whether this is reality or a hallucination.

John C. Reilly, the best-known actor in the film, plays a kind of straight man role here as the comic’s cousin. Tye Sheridan plays a clown/mime who performs along with the comic at various desolate venues. The clown’s performances are similarly bizarre, though the crowd at least responds to him while they ignore or heckle the comic.

I have a high tolerance for mumblecore as well as lightly plotted and even absurdist films. But this one didn’t quite work for me. There’s just not enough to grab onto either intellectually or emotionally. There is no backstory or context here, so we have no clue how or why the comic has reached this state. I also wondered how an unfunny comic with no fans could have gotten so many bookings, but I suppose you’re not supposed to ask such questions.

As the comic’s behavior gets progressively more bizarre, it’s like watching a random insane person mumbling to himself on the streets of a large city. Perhaps that’s not far from what Alverson is going for here -to compel you to look at one example of what a cold and uncaring world has done to one person, without providing any of the details. Watching Entertainment is definitely not a pleasant experience, but the movie is  interesting and well acted if ultimately obscure and pointless.

Frances Ha: Woody Allen For the New Generation?

Frances Ha (2012)
Director: Noah Baumbach

Frances Ha, the latest film from director Noah Baumbach, whose earlier films include Kicking and Screaming, The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding and Greenberg, can be seen as a revisiting of territory made familiar by Woody Allen decades ago.

The fact that Frances Ha was shot in black and white and explores the lives of young and artsy New Yorkers makes the Woody Allen comparison inevitable. Yet this and other Baumbach films also show other influences, such as Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan and even perhaps Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise. The latter might seem a stretch, but in that iconic indie film from 1983, Jarmusch portrays aimless pre-hipsters in Brooklyn who, among other things, engage in cryptic conversations and have the tendency to take pointless journeys. Stranger Than Paradise was also a black and white film, and even has a character who wears the kind of hat common in today’s hipsters (who no doubt all saw that film).

None of this is meant to imply that Frances Ha is merely a derivative work or one that simply retreads familiar territory. Like Quentin Tarrantino (a very different sort of filmmaker overall), Baumbach has the gift of being able to present familiar themes in a manner that is completely refreshing and entertaining. Frances Ha is no exception. This film was co-written by Baumbach and star Greta Gerwig, who plays Frances.

It’s a little difficult to describe the plot of Frances Ha, as it’s mainly a series of scenes and montages. Some have identified it as a look at close female friendships, and how they can almost border on romance. At one point, Frances says to her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner), “We’re like an old lesbian couple that doesn’t have sex.” While the relationship between the two twenty-something women takes up a lot of screen time, the film is really broader in scope. It’s an exploration of a contemporary bohemian lifestyle that must come to terms with economic hardships.

Frances, unlike some of her friends and roommates, is struggling to support herself as a dancer. At one point she moves in with a pair of well-off kids who say things like, “We’re thinking of hiring a maid; it only costs $400 a month.” Yet, even though she has trouble paying her rent, she stubbornly refuses to take a receptionist job at the dance studio where she teaches part time because it’s not in line with her creative aspirations.

Frances Ha will annoy some people, because there is no effort to make the protagonist or her friends universally likable or accessible. In fact, if you are not young, hip, educated and/or urban, you may find these characters as alien as members of a tribe on a continent you’ve only seen on the Discovery Channel. In this manner, Baumbach follows in the footsteps of Woody Allen, whose Upper East Side elitist professionals were never meant to be representative of America at large.

I have thoroughly enjoyed all of Baumbach’s films, and Frances Ha is no exception. They are driven by characters who, while not always rational or likable, are complex enough to be believable. While some of the dialogue seems slightly over-the-top in its self-consciousness (you might catch a whiff of Portlandia here as well), some people actually do talk this way. Frances herself, however, does not come across as pretentious or overly hip; she is more the product of a certain milieu that compels certain ways of talking and thinking.

Unlike many other indie films that wallow in quirkiness, Frances Ha does not go overboard trying to convince you that its characters are adorable. If you end up liking Frances, its because you accept her as a person who somehow transcends stereotypes.

Related Blogs

    Night on Earth – Criterion Collection

    Night on Earth -  Criterion Collection

    Jim Jarmusch’s 1991 ensemble comedy turns a gimmick into a revelation. The story begins in Los Angeles one evening at 7:07 p.m. A talent agent (Gena Rowlands) gets into the back of a taxi driven by a sullen, chain-smoking young woman (Winona Ryder), and over the course of their bumpy conversation, Rowlands’s character becomes convinced that the cabby would be perfect for a particular part in a movie. Meanwhile, at that very moment, taxi drivers in New York, Paris, Rome, and Hels
    Buy Night on Earth – Criterion Collection at Amazon

    Jim Jarmusch: Indie Film Pioneer

    Jim Jarmusch is a director who has helped to define the modern independent film. His films are always interesting, often brilliant and possess a unique combination of minimalism, deadpan humor and keen observation about the human condition.

    What follows are brief descriptions of some of Jarmusch’s better-known films. While I have seen all of these, some I’ve only seen once and quite a while ago, which will explain the extreme brevity of some of them. More information is available on the links.

    Stranger Than Paradise is often cited as a breakthrough film, even the first indie film. However you define it, Stranger Than Paradise is a brilliant and hilarious look at the aimless lives of two drifters. This movie is practically a crash course in existentialism. Well, at least as I see it; I’m sure some scholars of Sartre or Heidegger would disagree, but it’s still a movie worth seeing, or seeing again.

    Down By Law is almost a sequel to Stranger Than Paradise, coming a couple of years later and having a similar style. This one is about three convicts who escape from prison, but like its predecessor, it’s really about the absurdity of life and relationships. I enjoyed this one, but not quite as much as Stranger, because it seemed to be coasting a little on that film’s style and energy.

    Mystery Train is a film where Jarmusch takes off in a new direction, using some of the techniques that became popular quite a bit later with directors like Quentin Tarantino, such as combining storylines of different characters and jumping around in time. Mystery Train looks at several people in a Memphis hotel, many of them obsessed with Elvis.

    Night On Earth
    again contains several sets of characters, this time in different cities around the world. The common denominator is that all of the action takes place during taxi rides. Some great scenes of nighttime city life.

    Ghost Dog is one of my favorite Jarmusch films. Here he once again breaks new ground and explores the intersecting (at least in this film) underworlds of the mafia and samurai warriors. Forest Whitaker is great as a modern-day samurai who wanders city streets enforcing an ancient code of honor. This is another film with unique idiosyncrasies that add to the enjoyment, such as the Whitaker character’s fondness and skill with carrier pigeons. One of the themes of Ghost Dog is the question of whether it is possible to hold on to a meaningful set of values in the wasteland of modern culture.

    Dead Man
    stars Johnny Depp in Jarmusch’s foray into the Western genre.

    Broken Flowers stars Bill Murray, who might seem an unusual actor to appear in a Jim Jarmusch film, but he is a versatile actor who does well in everything from mainstream comedies to offbeat indies like this. Here he is on a road trip where he meets various women he’s been involved with over the years.

    Coffee and Cigarettes
    is yet another very different kind of film. It is almost entirely dialogue centered, and yet it remains fascinating and, to its credit, never feels like you are watching a stage play. There are a series of encounters between people, who literally do smoke and drink coffee, all in black and white.

    There is a wide diversity of talent here, including Jarmusch favorites Tom Waits and Roberto Benigni, as well as Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, comedian Steven Wright, and Alfred Molina. What I love about this film is similar to what I admired so much in his earlier Stranger Than Paradise -the ability to convey so much with so little. The conversations in Coffee and Cigarettes all hinge on mostly subtle points, differences of opinion, concealed resentments and the like.

    Whereas the average mainstream movie hits the viewer over the head with huge concepts and then usually disappoints when it comes to delivering anything meaningful, Jarmusch takes acorn-sized ideas and allows the viewer to watch them grow.

    Of course, not everyone has the patience for this. People weaned on special effects, comic book characters, car chases and explosions will find a film like Coffee and Cigarettes boring and difficult to sit through. For Jarmusch fans, however, this is one of his trademark efforts.