netflix reviews – “Down by Law” + “Alice’s Restaurant”

By bonnie, 11 December, 2010

In which I review the most recent films that I finally got around to watching.  These two were a couple of days apart and not really planned, but I guess I kind of have an off-beat crime movie theme going.

Down By Law (1986) is one of Jim Jarmusch’s earliest films.  It features Tom Waits, John Lurie, and Roberto Begnigni, who were all excellent.  Shot in black and white in and around New Orleans, this film is really all about these kind of beautiful stark shots.   The screenplay is entirely comprised of  individual, almost episodic scenes with natural but discomforting pauses that build into a convergent into one “plot”  (as much as any in a Jim Jarmusch film, all his plots are really just some kind of journey).  In this one there is a tension about the entire thing offset with quirky humor that just really works.  All you really need to know is that the three actors end up thrown together in a jail cell and then there is kind of a brilliant odd-man chemistry that happens.

I really loved watching this.   And although I’m pretty much guaranteed to love anything with Tom Waits in it, his reigned-in performance in this film really worked well with Lurie (characteristically stoic) and Begnigni (characteristically a bit mad-cap).  It also doesn’t hurt that the music was all John Lurie’s composition with a few Tom Waits tunes thrown in.    Which is to say, fucking awesome gritty blues, jazz and whatever it is that Tom Waits does.  (Does he have a genre?  Is he his own genre?  Can we just call it awesomesauce?)  Regardless, this is an excellent film.

Alice’s Restaurant (1969) is the quasi-autobiographical film based on Arlo Guthrie’s life and the writing of the song Alice’s Restaurant Massacree.   I didn’t know what to expect with this.  I don’t tend to love a certain type of film made in the late 60’s, early 70’s… that kind of concept film that is kind of about nothing but in an extraordinarily boring and self-indulgent way.

So I guess I expected a film about Arlo and his buddies immersed in hippie culture and a lot of narrative just following how groovy life was and the harsh society they were dropping out of, with a bit of Vietnam War protest thrown in.  And I don’t mean to say all of that is terrible, I do love the song, but an entire film of that wouldn’t be fun for me to watch, per se.

It is not that.  Not at all.  It is a very honest, sometimes incredibly poignant, look at the very recent past of his own life and the people who were important to him.  They included some really ballsy parts highlighting the more destructive side of the drug culture of the day and how relationships were just as complicated and not all “groovy” and “free love” as a lot of people tend to make it sound.   The film reflects 1967… (just two years prior to when it was made) when Arlo was 20,  he gets kicked out of college and is trying to figure out what he wants to do with himself and his father is dying.  You see him growing as a person, from a self-described reactionary, being guided by what he doesn’t want or believe in, from someone trying to figure out a map of his own principles.   It was really a quite fascinating period piece.    And I generally don’t like examining the boom generation at any period.  I feel like I was force-fed their worldviews and self-examinations my entire life.  (That is another rant for another time).  But I liked this movie.  I would recommend it if you are a fan of that particular song or are just interested in seeing something genuine and a bit raw from that time period.

Both films are available on Netflix.  Alice’s Restaurant is currently available streaming.

What do you think?

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