Dead Man,
and a few more films

#231  [archive]
DEC. 6, 2023

Dead Man (1995)

It's a black-and-white western, with Johnny Depp as a meek accountant named William Blake (but not the poet). He's fresh from Cleveland, taking a train to a small backwoods town in the old west, but the job he's expecting is already filled.

Being a dull-eyed newbie he stumbles quickly into trouble. He's never fired a gun before but has a knack for it, and keeps getting cornered into situations where he needs to pull the trigger. Soon, William Blake is a wanted man.

On the run, he's befriended by a native named Nobody, with sad eyes and a sarcastic disposition. Gary Farmer plays Nobody, and he's the heart and soul of the movie, much more than Depp, who mostly just stands there.

The score is mood music, improvised by Neil Young alone on his guitar. Sometimes it works, sometimes it's even great, but it's repetitive, often mixed too loud, and at dramatic moments it's played with an annoying reverb effect that draws your attention to the music and out of the movie. 

Early on, there's a bar or whorehouse where someone at the piano plays 'Billy Boy'. You'll remember the song — "Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy boy, Billy boy? Can she bake a cherry pie, charming Billy?" It's a folk song of the era, so it's historically accurate and a piano player might play it, but cripes — I hadn't heard that song since I was six, and would've been happy to never hear it again. The movie got the song stuck so far in my head I'm humming it and hating it the next morning.

Other than my quibbles about the music, Dead Man is absolutely a masterpiece, written and directed by Jim Jarmusch. JJ loves awkward characters, bewildered and isolated, who never comfortably fit in with the world around them, and this movie has two of them in Blake and Nobody. 

This is one of the manliest non-gay movies I've ever seen, with no dames to speak of, except a hooker and Nobody's girlfriend, both quickly gone. Testosterone is everywhere, including a brief appearance by Robert Mitchum, carrying a rifle and delivering his lines to a bear. Also in the all-tough cast: Gabriel Byrne, Crispin Glover, Lance Henriksen, John Hurt, Alfred Molina, Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, and Steve Buscemi as the bartender. 

But also, can she bake a cherry pie, Billy boy, Billy boy?

Verdict: YES. 

♦ ♦ ♦

Dead Space Downfall (2008)

Animated science fiction that's not for the kiddies is a great idea. The moviemakers can do anything they want visually, at no extra charge for effects.

This is animated sci-fi, and starts out enjoyably as a rip-off of Alien and The Thing, but soon it becomes nothing much more than mind-numbing action with characters yelling at each other and blowing stuff up.

What I didn't know until after I'd seen it is, it's a tie-in, intended to promote some stupid video game. The movie didn't feel like a commercial, I'll give it that, but it sure didn't feel like a movie.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Destination: Outer Space (2010)

This is another of Christopher Mihm's loving tributes to 1950s sci-fi films. 

Testing a faster-than-light rocket, something goes kablooey and test pilot Mike Jackson is blown into deep space. He spends the rest of the movie trying to make his way back to Earth, with a bunch of robotic lifeforms and space pirates trying to block his way.

Mihm's do-it-yourself movies are always a good time, and this one's no exception. If you like golden era sci-fi flicks, you'll like this.

It's a bit more adult than other Mihms I've seen, with occasional cuss words and a whisky flask. My only complaint is, I could've done with a lot less of the space alien who ends every sentence with "yes?" 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Disorderly Orderly (1964)

It's been a lifetime since I've seen a Jerry Lewis movie, and the French say he's brilliant.

Playing a failed medical student who's been reduced to working as an orderly at an upscale mental hospital, Lewis is endlessly silly, which is not a synonym for 'funny'. He makes faces and talks weirdly and struggles with spaghetti and bandages and any mechanical device more complex than a can opener. 

Somehow Lewis has a girlfriend, but he treats her shabby because he loves Susan Oliver. She's playing a suicidal woman who's angry at everyone in the world — and at Lewis, for some of his sleazier antics. Oliver seems to be in a different (and better) movie entirely, about actual mental health issues.

Lewis is surprisingly likable when he's not doing wacky voices and tripping over his shoestrings. But he's Jerry Lewis, so mostly he acts nuts. 

Is it funny when a man in a full-body cast rolls down a hillside? Is it funny when Lewis insists on forcefully brushing a patient's teeth , and notices afterward that the patient has no teeth? If your answer is yes, you'll have plenty of laughs here. I watched the whole thing, and laughed 2-3 times, but I ain't proud of it.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Doctor X (1932)

In the excellent musical Rocky Horror Picture Show, the opening number is a long lyrical list of classic sci-fi and horror movies, including the line, "Doctor X will build a creature." That's why I chased down a copy of Doctor X, and watched it tonight.

There's been a series of murders, with the killer striking once monthly under a full moon, mutilating and cannibalizing each corpse. The cops think the killer is one of the scientists on staff at Doctor Xavier's Academy of Wacky Medicine, which is good sleuthing, because everyone at the Academy is a mad scientist. Doctor X only hires creepy weirdos. The only question is which mad scientist is mad enough to be a killer.

Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray star, with Lee Tracy hanging around as a wisecracking newspaper reporter, to water down the movie's horror elements with comedy. Michael Curtiz directs, and later went on to The Adventures of Robin Hood and Casablanca.

Doctor X was filmed in very expensive two-strip Technicolor, and this is a recent restoration by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, so it looks great. Two-strip Technicolor unavoidably gives everything a slight green tint, but that's kinda perfect for a spooky movie.

The main laboratory is a rather remarkable array of green and glass. There's excellent mask work, credited to Max Factor Company. Everything looks great, and Fay Wray gets to scream, but also she acts, and quite credibly.

Most of this is a mystery movie, with Doctor X pursuing remarkably kooky methods to find the killer. It's frankly more bizarre than scary, until the sci-fi and horror of it all finally bubbles up in the last ten minutes, and when it does it's worth the wait. 

While it's certainly a good movie, I'm not sure it's particularly scary in 2023, and I'd like a word with Rocky Horror about that lyric. 

Verdict: YES.


• • • Coming attractions • • •

The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985)
Gods of Times Square (1999)
Frankenhooker (1990)
Greystoke (1984)
Hugo (2011)
The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)
The Lawyer (1970)
Not of This Earth (1957)
The Saint in New York (1938)
Same Kind of Different as Me (2017)
The Shooting (1966)
The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)
The Train (1964)
Welcome to New Orleans (2006)
Winter Soldier (1972)

... plus occasional 
schlock and surprises 

There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • or your local library

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —

Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. 
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  1. Speilberg and Lucas can kiss my ass, Jarmusch is the best at consistently making movies I want to see. It always feels like Jarmusch is narrowcasting to a demographic of ME and people I know. Movies for people who don't fit in.

    What's your favorite Jarmusch?

    1. I am partial to Always, or thought I was, but Down by Law last night might be it.


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