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Down By Law  [DVD]
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Stuck together in a New Orleans prison, convicts Zack (Tom Waits) and Jack (John Lurie) are constantly at each other's throats. But then Roberto (Roberto Begnini), an Italian who speaks non-stop fractured English, joins them in their cell and becomes the object of their mutual disdain. Nevertheless, it is Roberto who brings the trio together long enough to organise a jailbreak. Directed by Jim Jarmusch, with music from Lurie and Waits.
Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law is in the same minimalist, oddball, black-and-white groove as his classic of American independent cinema, Stranger than Paradise (1984). The setting is Louisiana, where two losers (musicians Tom Waits and John Lurie) find themselves stuck in a jail cell together. One day they are joined by a boisterous Italian (Roberto Benigni), and the chemistry changes--suddenly an escape attempt is on the horizon. Conventional drama is not Jarmusch's intention; one of the emotional high points of this film is the three guys marching around their prison cell shouting, "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!" Yet the deadpan style creates its own humorous mood, underscored by melancholy (also underscored by the music of Lurie and the gravel-voiced songs of Waits). This was the first American film for Italian comedian Benigni, (Life is Beautiful), and he lights it up with his effervescent clowning. Jarmusch has said that Down by Law forms a loose trilogy with Stranger than Paradise and the subsequent Mystery Train (1989)--a triptych of disaffected, drifting life in the United States. Few filmmakers have ever surveyed ennui so entertainingly. --Robert Horton, Amazon.com --This text refers to an alternate DVD edition.
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Of course, when you dig Jarmusch, Waits, Lourie, Benigni.
If these kind of questions interest you, most likely Jarmusch will. 'Down By Law' is a visual treat, a fact quickly prefaced by its opening shots of New Orleans, seemlessly concluded with the final, symmetrical frame of the protagonists going their separate ways. If the performances are very natural but also very idiosyncratic, that might be because John Lurie and Tom Waits are principally musicians, not actors. And because Roberto Benigni genuinely knew very little English when the film was made.
The music, and the story, are enchanting, surprising and resistant to full narrative closure or an obvious moral. Benigni was not then the worldwide star he is today, and he has to fight on screen for air-time. It's worth the wait when the master comic raconteur gets going.
So here are some tips:
(1) if you like Benigni in this, check out a later Jarmusch film 'Night on Earth'. He gets a full half-hour solo as a chattering taxi driver. More adult than 'La Vita e Bella'. Funnier too.
(2) if you like John Lurie and Tom Waits, listen to their music. Between them they've scored a subtantial amount of Jarmusch's oeuvre. Lurie also stars in 'Stranger Than Paradise', an earlier Jarmusch film.
(3) if you like the style and pace of Jarmusch, dig a little deeper and watch some of the filmmakers who influenced him. John Cassavetes and Yasujiro Ozu I'd particularly recommend.
(4) if you wonder "who is Jim Jarmusch?", watch Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's 'Blue in the Face'. You'll get a good 5-10 minute cameo riff from the man himself on the merits of smoking.
But 'Down By Law' is a great place to start. It's a top dollar showing from Jarmusch's penniless down-and-outs.
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