Review: Jarmusch’s “Paterson” is Simply Charming

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Paterson (Adam Driver) is not your typical movie protagonist, if only for the fact that he is so plain. His life is nothing special, and his days are spent so similarly that they eventually all blend together. Every morning he wakes up somewhere between 6 and 6:30 and goes to his job as a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. He spends his free time at lunch meditating on a waterfall in a local park and writing love poems inspired by symbols he sees in daily life (rain, twins) and the quirky conversations he overhears while on the bus. In the early evening he returns home to his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), who seems to be pursuing a new artistic endeavor every day – one day she’s painting curtains that look like they’ve been designed by Yayoi Kusama, the next she’s baking and decorating cupcakes for a craft fair, and the day after that she’s teaching herself the guitar so she can become a country music star. Paterson and Laura live with their Marvin (credited as “Nellie” on IMDb), their charismatic bulldog, who Paterson walks every evening, always stopping off at the same pub to unwind for a few hours and occasionally helping the other regulars with their life issues.

“Paterson” is a very “Jarmusch” film – a slice-of-life picture about people who aren’t particularly special or gifted and the simple lives they lead with the slightest comedic touch. Jarmusch’s films are relatable because their characters are so unremarkable, and they bring us back to reality by reminding us that not everyone is doing something new and exciting as Instagram so often fools us into thinking (Paterson doesn’t even own a cell phone!). His characters are real people who aren’t beautiful, who may never move out of their small town, who may never make a dent on the world at large – and that’s okay. They’re happy with their lives as they are, and if they aren’t, they eventually get over it. It’s the simplicity of the film that helps us to see beyond all the surface details and remember what we’re always seemingly forgetting: that life doesn’t need to be perfect or grand to be good.

Jarmusch’s film is a beautiful musing on the importance of having and pursuing life dreams, and it is delivered charmingly. Adam Driver plays Paterson in an understated manner that one may mistake for indifference, but that perfectly fits the mood and style of the film. As Paterson walks the sunlit path to work each morning, he recites his poetry in his head and the words materialize on screen. The conversations between passengers on the bus are reminiscent of Jarmusch’s 1994 film Night on Earth, and reiterate the idea that everyone has problems, no matter how big or small, serious or petty. Jarmusch’s stylistic choices and subtlety of emotion make “Paterson”, which otherwise could have been a boring story, memorable and heartwarming.

Rating: ★★★★☆

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“Akerman’s Most Accessible”

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On Thanksgiving Day, I curled up on the couch to watch a film while the aromatic smells of the holiday meal wafted into the living room from the kitchen. Looking to watch something with a lighter tone, I remembered that some kind soul had uploaded Chantal Akerman’s A Couch in New York (1996) to YouTube, and decided it would be the perfect film for that day.

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The film opens with the famous New York City skyline. Dr. Henry Harriston (William Hurt) is a therapist who is bored by his life and annoyed with being constantly bombarded by his patients’ phone calls in which they describe their fantasies and breakdowns in minute detail. Looking to add some excitement and freshness to his life, he takes out an ad in the paper for an anonymous apartment swap with someone in Paris. Beatrice Saulnier (Juliette Binoche) comes across the ad by chance and jumps at the opportunity to go to New York, and they both rush off to each other’s apartments with unfinished business left behind for each other to deal with. Henry arrives at Beatrice’s flat to a mess of dirty dishes and dirty laundry, and then must with more phone calls (the very thing he was trying to escape) from Beatrice’s many boyfriends. He is even attacked by one in the middle of the night, who he then hilariously counsels. Meanwhile, Beatrice explores the city, cares for Henry’s beautiful golden retriever , and offers her unprofessional but miracle-working advice to Henry’s patients. Exhausted by the language barrier and Beatrice’s boyfriends, Henry returns to New York to quit the apartment experiment, but by then Beatrice has become so absorbed in her role as his fill-in therapist and has even assigned her friend Anne (Stephanie Buttle) the position of receptionist. He is unable to “make an appointment” to see her, so he pretends to be a patient so he can get his apartment back, but his plans fall through when he ends up falling in love with Beatrice through their weekly heart to hearts. Henry keeps up the ruse until his true identity is eventually revealed …

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This has been referred to by many as Chantal Akerman’s “most accessible” film. This is perhaps due to the fact that the dialogue is mostly in English or because it’s a simple rom-com with none of the deeper political or social commentaries most of her other films contain. I find that this is my least favorite film of all of the ones I’ve seen by Akerman so far because it lacks the social analyses that I loved so much in her other films. Binoche’s talent is wasted on a childish and clueless character who speaks in an affected high-pitched tone that is clearly not Binoche’s own and which only ceases being annoying after you get used to it halfway through the film. Hurt is dull, dull, dull, but I find him so in most films. The story is clever and cute and flows well, and I appreciate its understated romance that omits what I expected would be a cliché and melodramatic reveal at the end. Still, all the film can really offer is an hour and a half of entertainment. Fans of Akerman’s probably won’t care for this film as it appears to be her attempt at making a more mainstream picture and lacks the distinct qualities her other films have. It seems like Akerman tried to put her own twists and touches on this Hollywood love story, but the boring characters and empty acting combined with the conventional tale overpowered her efforts.

Rating: ★★☆☆☆ 1/2

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Dean on the Big Screen

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The Film Forum’s poster display for the 60th anniversary of Giant, part of their retrospective on James Dean which included screenings of Rebel Without a Cause.

On Tuesday I went into New York City to see Rebel Without a Cause, part of the Film Forum’s retrospective on James Dean celebrating the 60th anniversary of Giant. They screened East of Eden and Giant as well, and boy, would I have loved to see Dean act in all three films on the big screen, but I could only fit in one show. Still, it was a magical experience watching him in all his glory in his most famous role as Jim Stark, possibly the most thoughtful rebel ever depicted in a film. Upon rewatching Nicholas Ray’s visually stunning picture, I was still irritated by some of its weaker plot points, but I saw the deeper side to the story that I’d overlooked the first time around.

The film revolves around Jim Stark (Dean), a lost teenager who must try to fit in as the new kid in town. All Jim really wants is to have a chance to make friends and feel accepted, but his parents make that impossible by packing up and moving every time he gets into the littlest of trouble. He also feels controlled by his mother and wishes his father would be more of a man and stand up to his mother’s erratic behavior. In the first few scenes of the film, Jim meets another misfit, Plato (Sal Mineo), a boy who has been essentially abandoned by both his parents, and Judy (Natalie Wood), who cries about her father no longer loving her as he did when she was a child. After a series of fights with their parents and run-ins with bullies, the three find themselves together and realize just how much they have in common. The cast also includes Jim Backus playing Jim’s hilariously clueless father, Corey Allen as the big, dumb bully Buzz, and Dennis Hopper as one of Buzz’s henchmen.

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Nicholas Ray excellently captures the struggles of life as a teenager in this landmark film, one of the first in Hollywood to focus on middle-class suburban kids. I was most impressed by how cleverly written the film is, especially the dialogue. It feels true to how actual high schoolers would speak and isn’t loaded with forced jokes and one-liners that are found in similar, more modern films. The film reveals its depth with the conversations between characters, most notably in the opening scenes between Dean and the police officer. The acting is also superb, and Dean, Wood, and Mineo have incredible chemistry; their interactions are so genuine and portray the awkwardness that naturally occurs between young people (which can likely be attributed to Nicholas Ray allegedly allowing James Dean to improvise many scenes, with the rest of the actors then following Dean’s direction). The complex relationship Plato develops with Jim is fascinating, as Plato simultaneously loves him paternally, fraternally, and romantically, and the homosexual undertones of their interactions were certainly groundbreaking for the time. Jim plays the part of the teenage misfit beautifully, portraying a deeper and more vulnerable side that is rarely seen in comparable characters from other films.

The film is deliciously shot in Cinemascope, and the bright, beautiful colors that pop off the screen are such a sight to behold on the big screen. The film drifts from the hazy, artificially lit rooms of the police station to a bright blue sky on the first day of school and a high school crowd dressed in bold patterns to characters standing in the shadows of darkened rooms, offering us visuals that look like something straight out of Edward Hopper’s oil paintings. The angles of the camera are stunning as well: during the fight at the observatory, we see Buzz’s switchblade glisten as the sun catches it in the forefront, looming over Dean’s short stature in the background; in another scene, the camera rolls over 180 degrees to show Jim’s mother trot down the stairs as he rights himself on the couch after a tumultuous night out.

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I found Judy’s backstory to be weakly and creepily written: a father stops loving his daughter simply because she’s growing up? The inference I draw from that is that her father must view her as a sex object because she’s a woman now and no longer a child, and to stop loving her would be to avoid any conflict that could arise. It’s understandably disturbing and frustrating for her, and she reconciles it through her romance with Jim, but I felt there could have been more to her personal conflict to make her a deeper character as the other two protagonists are. There are also a lot of corny bits in here that are clearly a product of the time which make the 50s seem super corny, and they make the film feel dated in parts. The fights between Jim and his parents were also a bit ridiculous, laughable, and over the top, and I felt the film could have been shortened by a good twenty minutes – the last scene feels rather drawn out (which I assume was an attempt at suspense, but a bad one at that).

Even so, at the time of its release Ray’s film offered a groundbreaking view of the personal hell each teenager eventually goes through. Though the film has its weak and melodramatic spots, overall it is a strong, well-written and well-acted picture that offers us some universal and ever-relevant messages: all anyone and everyone wants is to be loved and to find their place in the world.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 1/2

(Photos from my Instagram; GIFs from my Tumblr)
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