Broken Flowers (2005)

In my Silver City review, I mentioned my recent writing retreat, in which I went internet-free in a cabin for a week to get some fiction writing done, and the collection of “Blockbuster’s Twilight Years”-era DVDs that had been purchased during that organization’s decline and which found there way to the cabin. One of these films was Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 Bill Murray vehicle Broken Flowers. I have a complete and utter Jarmusch blind spot, never having seen any of his films. In fact, I only know him from his appearance on Fishing with John for, as you well know by now dear reader, I am a weirdo. After the abysmal experience of watching In Secret and once again trying and failing to get through Titus, I really wanted to clear my Jessica Lange palate, so I figured I’d give it a shot.

Don Johnston (Bill Murray) is a serial womanizer, now retired after having done quite well in the field of “computers,” and living rather disaffectedly. When his latest ladyfriend Sherry (Julie Delpy) leaves him, citing that she feels like his mistress even though he isn’t married, he receives a second blow: an untraceable letter from a woman claiming that Don fathered a now nineteen-year-old son with her and she kept it from him. The letter’s author warns that the boy is now on a road trip, and she has her suspicions that he’s looking for his father, and doesn’t want Don to be taken completely unaware. At the urging of his neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Don travels to see the five women who might have sent the letter.

First up is Laura (Sharon Stone), who married a now-dead stock car racer. Now a professional closet organizer, she does have a teenaged child—a daughter inexplicably named Lolita, who even more inexplicably expresses a sexual interest in 55-year-old Don. Next up is Dora (Frances Conroy), formerly a flower child but now leading a boring existence as the wife and business partner of real estate agent Ron (Christopher McDonald). Then it’s on to Dr. Carmen Markowski (Jessica Lange), who Don remembers as being very passionate about becoming a lawyer, but who is now some kind of animal whisperer, and from there Don locates Penny (Tilda Swinton), living in a bleak, crumbling clapboard farmhouse somewhere that definitely has a meth problem. Finally, Don visits the grave of Michelle, the fifth and final potential author of the letter. Returning home, he notices a young man (Mark Webber) whom he seems to remember having run into before, and buys him a sandwich and a coffee. Assuming that the boy is the long-lost son whose arrival was foretold, Don starts talking about being the kid’s father, freaking him out and causing him to run off. Alone in the street, Don watches as a car drives by slowly as a teenaged boy (Homer Murray, Bill’s real life son) makes eye contact with Don from the passenger seat, and then is gone.

While definitely a product of a certain time and of a certain generation of masculinity, which detracted from the end product for me, this was a good watch overall. The idea of Don Johnston as a Don Juan-esque lothario is a bit of a stretch (no offense to Murray, but let’s get real) and the fact that the film hinges on not just his one-time sexual voracity in his peak, but also his virility and that he’s never changed his behavior, is the weakest element. Murray’s also doing none of the heavy lifting here, as the editing is doing nearly all of the work while Murray sits back and lets his motionless silence be captured by Jarmusch’s directorial eye. There’s a great performance in here from the male lead, but it’s all in the Kuleshov of it all, while Murray does that thing that he always does (hey—if it’s not broke).

Looking at Jarmusch’s larger filmography, it seems his earlier films that predate Broken Flowers were largely anthological works, while his more recent ones seem to be more standard in their narrative structure, and this film is a kind of bridge between those two forms, conceptually, as it follows Don through a series of vignettes that consist of reunions with the women he once loved, each one shorter than the last, beginning with an overnight with Laura, a dinner with Dora and her husband, a constantly-interrupted period between appointments with Carmen, a four or five sentence exchange with Penny, and finally no time at all with Michelle. This adherence to structure is something that I love in any work of art; I think that the attention to detail is something that soothes my hyperactive brain. There’s also a lot of fun with the minor details of each interaction: Laura’s daughter’s detachment from the death of her father (“It was on the TV”), the utter sterility and banality of Dora’s bland dinner (a big slab of meat, unseasoned white rice, and crinkle cut carrots, possibly boiled), and the dilapidation of Penny’s home. There’s also something fascinating about the high number of basketball hoops everywhere he goes, which Don always instantly assumes means that there’s a teenage boy about and that he’s come to the right place, and yet their omnipresence renders them completely irrelevant as a clue.

Before Don goes on his adventure, Winston primes him to be on the lookout for pink items and objects to match the pink paper on which the letter was typed, and to try and obtain writing samples to compare to the written address on the envelope, which is the only handwriting on the letter. Although he isn’t successful in the latter endeavor, he (and by extension the viewer) is drawn to pink items everywhere in his adventure: Penny’s boots and motorcycle, Dora’s business card (to match her husband’s blue one), Carmen’s pants, etc. It’s a nice touch that, like the basketball hoops that appear so frequently, all of these clues are meaningless as well. The film sets itself up as a mystery: who sent the letter? And in the end, that mystery isn’t important, and remains unsolved. Each woman with whom he reunites is utterly noncommittal in their responses to Don’s roundabout questions, and in the end, it’s not as if he could have expected something different: if any one of them had taken the time to send Don a letter without divulging their identity, then they wouldn’t really allow themselves to be taken by surprise as he intends and suddenly confess when confronted in person. The possibility is even floated that Sherry wrote the letter as an attempt to shake Don out of his comfort zone, and that’s a possibility, but that resolution doesn’t really matter in the end.

As a showcase for the women who round out this cast, including Chloë Sevigny as Carmen’s assistant and Pell James as Sun Green, a compassionate florist who tends to the wounds that Don received from Penny’s friends, this is a pretty nice vehicle. It’s a film with a lot of breathing room but no real fat to be trimmed, playing out in shots that are long enough to convey meaning and last not one moment more. The blipvert/fever dreams that Don has in his quiet moments were initially distracting, especially as they simply once more reminded viewers that Don is still a perfectly virile man capable of sexual thought, which errs a little too close to the “New Yorker story in which an aging professional lusts after his student/protege” genre for my personal tastes, but not enough to derail the whole shebang.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Cold Steel (1987)

EPSON MFP image

three star

It’s tempting to think of 1995’s Jade as the bargain bin version of William Friedkin’s masterfully sleazy 80s cop thriller To Live and Die in L.A., but maybe the director wasn’t at all imitating past success with that admittedly dire misfire. By the time Friedkin made Jade, the 80s sleaze market he helped shape with his Wang Chung-scored cop thriller masterpiece had formed into its own solid genre, ranging wildly in both content & quality. The Sharon Stone/Adam Ant cop thriller Cold Steel, delivered by the one-time director Dorothy Ann Puzo, is just as sleazy & cheaply made as Jade and could easily be accused of the same claims of To Live and Die in L.A. counterfeiting (heh, heh), but because it doesn’t feature a filmmaker retreading old ground it gets by as a straightforward genre entry. Cold Steel is undeniably of its time in every possibly way. Its clash of 80s pop ballad cheese with extreme stomach-churning violence is only unremarkable because there was so much other tacky, tonally incongruous violence being produced at the time of its release. Considered in isolation and divorced from its peers & influences, Cold Steel is a fairly entertaining picture (which is more than can be said in Jade’s defense, unfortunately).

Released the same year as Lethal Weapon, Cold Steel attempts to navigate the same balance of light humor and intense violence as that much more enduring work, but can’t manage to match the intelligence of Shane Black’s game-changing screenplay. In this scenario, our down on his luck, perpetually drunk cop mixes pills & booze to show his gritty side, but bangs an automated coffee machine with commands like, “C’mon! Squirt!” only to receive a coffee facial to show that he’s also, in effect, a lighthearted clown. This sloppy cut-up finds himself entangled in a never-ending loop of revenge when a vicious gang (including Adam Ant as a smooth-talking goon) murders his father on Christmas Day for a perceived past wrong. The leader of the gang responsible, known only as the Iceman, is a hard drug-shooting creep with a mechanical voice box that allows him to speak through the wound in his throat. It’s at first unclear if this thieving, murderous crew has any clear motive in their violent robberies or if they’re just generic gangster baddies, but as our boozed-out hero chases them down through a series of explosion-heavy car chases, industrial setting confrontations, and heartless double crossings, a much clearer picture starts to unfold. Somewhere in all this chaos he finds the time to woo a young Sharon Stone through the erotic exoticism of eating sushi and that’s how sleazy 80s cop movies are made.

Cold Steel and Jade are both derivative and narratively unambitious in their post-To Live and Die in L.A. genre sleaze, but Cold Steel is entertaining enough to prove that wasn’t Jade’s only problem. Some of its entertainment is pure novelty, especially in its casting of Adam Ant, Sharon Stone, and (in a brief scene) minor scream queen Heidi Kozak. What really struck me, though, was how shocking the film’s violence felt despite the familiarity of its generic narrative. Stuntmen on fire, vicious stabs to the neck, grotesquely detailed drug abuse (another nod to Friedkin?), and overeager sexual leering all give the film a slimy sheen of 80s sleaze that never quite reach the heights of films like To Live and Die in L.A. or Cruising, but are still affecting in their own right. I’ll even admit that a few of Cold Steel’s stray stabs at humor got a laugh out of me. I guffawed especially hard when the hero cop responds to the warning, “He’ll kill you both!” with a casual, “Yeah, I’m planning on not letting that happen.” Movies like Jade prove that following genre convention and searching for easy thrills doesn’t automatically equal entertainment value success, but Cold Steel somehow survives by playing by the rules and getting dirty in the details. It won’t blow your mind, but you could do much worse if this is the type of action picture you’re looking for and you’ve already seen To Live and Die in L.A. one too many times.

-Brandon Ledet