Spooky-season’s greetings and warm tidings as the weather turns chilly for our October installment of C What’s On, where we take a look at some of the latest and greatest films to hit the Criterion Channel. After taking September off from the series, it felt like time to stir the witch’s brew with C What’s On, and mix things up a bit.
So, rather than list the entirety of what’s new and lovely on the Criterion Channel--something done perfectly well over at the site by the fine folks there--I thought it might be more fun to dive a little deeper into some of the new additions to the Channel’s programming for October. Your time is limited! “The net is vast and infinite,” as they say, and there are more movies than you can shake a broomstick at! So in an effort to zero in on a few of Criterion’s offerings for October, without further ado, let’s talk about ghosts. Well, not specifically actual ghosts.
Ghost Dog, the innercity hitman extraordinaire and master of the martial ways in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Starring the impeccable Forrest Whitaker in the title role, Ghost Dog is a collision of Bushido, classic Italian mob films, and icy French noir, all set to the beats of the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA. It’s a mash-up of the highest caliber, effortlessly cool and introspective thanks to Jarmusch’s dry wit and steady hand.
Basically, Ghost Dog is something of an eccentric in the criminal community (of not quite New York, not quite New Jersey, where the film was shot), working jobs for the mafia and, specifically, Dog’s contact therein, Louie (John Tormey). Having saved Ghost Dog years earlier, the icy button man swears a life debt to Louie, much in the way the samurai of yore would pledge their lives as retainers to their lords. But somehow, feudal Japanese etiquette and chain-smoking mafioso don’t quite gel, and eventually, Ghost Dog finds himself with walls closing in from angles he hadn’t previously expected.
Ghost Dog is a masterpiece from a filmmaker whose career is full of terrific films. But while Jarmusch has plumed quieter depths of odd observational storytelling before, Ghost Dog feels like the filmmaker having a whole lot of fun. Evident in the smorgasbord of name-dropping in my little description, the film pays homage to so many styles and genres, and even specific films, one can’t help but feel the radiance of a genuine movie-lover behind the camera and in front of it as well. Whitaker effortlessly embodies this eccentric character, almost a Rip Van Winkle out of time and place. And yet, for his noble and self-discipline samurai reservations, Ghost Dog is eminently relatable and aware of his situation, recognizing his own presence as an outsider while maintaining something of good humor in navigating both the criminal underworld where he plies his trade and the innocents who exist on the fringe of that society.
Particularly evident in his relationship with Pearline (Camille Winbush), a young girl Ghost Dog befriends in a small neighborhood park. They talk about Frankenstein--the book, not the film--and their shared love of literature. It’s the unspoken moment in Ghost Dog when he loans the precocious kid his copy of the Hagakure, a seminal work of 17th-century samurai literature, that we understand Ghost Dog’s relationship with the girl to be somewhat fatherly, but a genuinely tender teacher-pupil one: his own mastery over calm and self-reflection to make sense of his violent and turbulent surroundings is something he wishes to pass on to Pearline.
Jarmusch’s film is packed with these perhaps unexpectedly sweet moments that offset the mob violence and the somewhat melancholic world, yet it’s the persistence of Ghost Dog’s tranquility, fostered by the zen-like hip-hop of the soundtrack and the matter-of-fact action scenes that make Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai more than a shoot ’em up and a joy to revisit (or catch for the first time) this October on the Criterion Channel.
For those looking for something perhaps a little more chilling for All Hallows’ Eve, we can turn the dial way back to 1931 for Fritz Lang’s masterpiece M. To boast of M being Lang’s best film, where the sci-fi ripples of Metropolis can be felt to this day, might seem ostentatious. Spend some time in the dark shadows of Berlin, where a string of horrible child-murders sew terror and distrust among the impoverished post-war community and the city’s shady underworld types, and you might see the method to my madness. Starring Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, an unhinged and self-deprecating serial killer whose impulses drive him to prey on children, the film is no laughing matter, clearly. Though Lang is as tasteful as one can be with such subject matter, never gratuitous, it’s the implications of a ball rolling away from a happy child, or a balloon previously held by a smiling young girl, that are more chilling than any explicit content might be.
M is something of a masterclass in horror filmmaking because of how wildly its tone shifts. Without ruining the entire performance that Lang and his writing partner Thea von Harbou orchestrate, there’s a remarkable shift from the abject creepiness of Beckert’s violence and psychotic hang-ups to the ways in which the community responds to the wave of terror, taking the safety of their children into their own hands.
Including some incredible setpieces that stretch for minutes on minutes in its second half, M is terrific horror because it proposes a response to the terror it presents the audience with. This is no simple shock-fest for visceral kicks. Lang proposes something as awful as the multiple murders of children and allows the horror of that situation to be explored from the grief and bewilderment of the initial realization to any attempted catharsis that might be attempted in its wake.
If that level of heavy isn’t your speed of trick or treat, there are other options to stream as the main event or background noise for your Spooktober celebrations. Delivering a slew of classic Universal monster movies, I’d be remiss in not mentioning my everlasting love for The Invisible Man, in which a transparent Claude Rains wreaks havoc with his newfound powers (affliction?), including but not limited to misdirecting trains (people die), playing pranks on small-town cops, making a mess at a snowy inn, and more. It’s the kind of spooky that you could watch with your mother. Ain’t that what holidays are for?
Also excellent from the Universal crop is The Mummy, the iconic Boris Karloff classic, eclipsed only, perhaps, by his role in Frankenstein. Meanwhile, The Black Cat, which features both Karloff and Bela Lugosi, is a must-watch for horror fans and capital-C Cinephiles.
To end this recap on a relatively non-spooky note, two of the highest recommendations out of the new batch of October goodies over at the Criterion Channel. The first, Hirokazu Koreeda’s After Life from 1998. I had this recommended to me and just within the past month watched it for the first time and absolutely loved it.
After Life takes place, well, after we die. Upon breathing that final breath, you’re whisked away to a nondescript ethereal plain--a pretty standard-looking office in a relatively remote institution. Once dead, you’re given a week’s time to decide upon a single memory from your life you’d like to keep for all of eternity, to be recreated as a short film by the underworld’s finest bureaucrats.
After Life features no bombastic otherworldly visuals and isn’t particularly dire in talking about death. The crew of reapers, I guess you could fairly call them, are all gentle enough and simple, just going about their job of trying to help the recently-departed settle into an eternity of, well, death. Koreeda’s documentary-like camerawork and the natural performances he teases out of his subjects might almost lull you into forgetting that you’re watching a fantasy unfold. All films are, of course, a fantasy of some degree, After Life made all the more interesting and self-reflective by having the reapers help make a film to represent the memories of the deceased.
A fan of these sorts of grounded takes on fantastic premises, I found After Life to be incredibly tender and humane in its matter-of-fact means of coping with death: the members of the committee for post-mortem productions as prone to boredom, petulance, humanity, and empathy as any of their recently-living customers. A slow burn worth cozying up for, despite the grim premise.
And to counterbalance that slight of existentialism, how about you close with some good old-fashioned Hollywood! Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is featured this October as a part of the Channel’s True Crime series, and if you can find a movie more fun and rollicking, then buddy, I want to hear about it. In 1969, having Paul Newman and Robert Redford lead your movie was about as big-name as you could get, with the now-legendary screen duo taking the roles of real-life outlaws who roamed the West around the turn of the 20th century.
Butch Cassidy is jam-packed with scene after scene of gorgeous (and famously expensive) Western locales and Hollywood charm cranked to the maximum, Newman’s easy-going cool balancing Redford’s curmudgeonly gunslinging. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is, in my mind, first and foremost a very funny movie. And who doesn’t like a laugh?
So once again, there seems to be a little something for everyone this October over at the Criterion Channel, whether it’s a slice of horror to keep you up at night or something a little warmer to fight off the early-Autumn chill. I’m a firm believer that every time is a good time for a movie, but there’s something to be said about a hot beverage and a good motion picture on a cool Fall evening.
Source: The Criterion Channel