Down By Law DVD Review

Cover: 9/10
The cover image is telling of the story, but does lack a touch of the comic elements that sneak their way in. This film has such a sense of humor and observational comedy that this cover kind of eliminates that aspect. It looks more like a rough and tumble “Bad Boys” kind of story, when in fact it’s much more well balanced than that. It’s not just a hard tale of a prison story, it’s human, funny, dramatic and quirky. I’m not sure how they could have showed all that, so I concede and say this is an effective if not accurate cover. It’s a great scene in the film and it tells a lot about the characters, oh but there’s so much more to know. Maybe that’s the thing, they wanted to dangle a bit of a red herring in front of the buyer/renter’s eyes.. hmmm

Extras and Features: 10/10
Note: This DVD is packed with Extras, so here are just a few to wet your appetite. This is a high quality DVD folks. Lots and lots of info from the directing, acting, musical, photographic stand points. Take it all in, but set aside a couple of hours, it’s a long one.

  • Thoughts and Reflections by Jim Jarmusch – An excellent set of recorded impressions by Jim Jarmusch. A director with a lot of artistic inclination beyond the standard Hollywood movie maker stereotype. His reflections of everything from the title, the music, the performers, lighting, the prison, etc.. it’s all there. Detail after detail that bring you so much closer to the story of making the film, so close in fact, the story of the film seems secondary. The production of this movie from gathering funds to the finished project seems to have been a labor of intense creative passion. That is something you get from Jarmusch. He is true to his art, to the art of the people around him, musicians, actors, everyone and hearing that from him first hand makes the film an even better experience.
  • 2002 Video Interview with DP Robby Muller – Director of Photography may not sound like someone you think is that vital in the scheme of things because you hear about the writers, directors and actors most of the time, but it’s vital to have a DP who understands the director’s vision as well as be able to execute those ideas into often stunning moving images. Finding out more about this almost hidden role in filmmaking is a real bonus
  • Out-takes – These are not what you might be thinking of as Outtakes. They are not messed up scenes, or bloopers. They are scenes “taken out” of the film before the final cut was released. So, these are Deleted Scenes for those DVD fans out there. Nice to see the process and evolution of different scenes or plot progression through the eyes of the editor. I think this film is all the better for the top notch editing choices they made.
  • Jarmusch’s Phone Calls with Waits, Benigni and Lurie – A hysterical conversation with Benigni as he reminisces about the film nearly 20 years later. His love of the art is obvious. The connection between all the parties involved seems strong, as if this project was catalyst to friendships and relationships beyond the film. You can’t probably say that about a lot of those mega-flicks they churn out all the time. All things indicate that his film came from the heart of an idea about creating a work of art. The phone calls, interviews and thoughts all reflect that.
  • Isolated Music Track – The music in this film is excellent and I’m thrilled to have it as a stand alone feature. Not only did John Lurie star with his musical cohort Tom Waits, but he composed the score as well. With Tom Waits’ powerful tunes mixed in with Lurie’s intuitive scoring, this sound track is as classy as the rest of the film.

Movie: 10/10
First I’ll start by saying this film looks fantastic. The crisp clear contrasts of the black and white are amazing. There is not a touch of muddied edges or flat values. This transfer offers up the full range of the palette of amazing grays, whites and blacks that Jarmusch and Muller strive to achieve. A movie from 1986 in black and white might not turn some of you on, but in this case, I say, it’s worth a try. This is the kind of film that can win you over if you are a pure color freak.

Down by Law is a quiet smash hit in my book. There is something illusive about a director who uses black and white to tell a story. The director says that he can tell what kind of style each story should be told in, including color or black and white, and he does not conform to what might or might not be bankable. This I like. I admire a director, writer, actor, or other film industry person who defies the stereotypical caricature of what has to be done to a movie to get it made. When a filmmaker steps up and out of the norm and decides to get his project made despite the system, it almost always has a huge payoff. Maybe not in the box office, or American box office anyway, but in the art form of filmmaking these films stand out and win me over big time.

Three men brought together by different circumstances with different lifestyles and from different cultures. A laid back pimp, a stubborn radio disc jockey and, well, an Italian wanderer semi-con man.

Jim Jarmusch directs this visual sensation with collaboration from his cast and crew to make a truly independent, unscathed film. Unscathed in that it does not fall into any traps of formulas, standards, guidelines of story telling or filmmaking. Instead it barrels ahead with originality and intelligence. Assuming the audience is intelligent is not something common to the film industry. But when you get a film like Down By Law, all parties involved are talented, intelligent people who want to tell a story, create a piece of art, design and execute a living testament to many forms of artistic expression.

Jarmusch is a lover of music and it shows. With a starring role being played by Tom Waits, a soulful songwriter/musician/singer the music’s got to be good. Set in New Orleans, the bluesy deep tones of Waits often melancholy songs bring every image of the city in the south to life with its dark back alleys, swamps and abandon cabins on the river.

As a backdrop to the moody music, New Orleans (never before visited by Jarmusch who wrote the story only with ideas and impression of what the city was all about) sets the stage for these interesting characters who struggle through some rough spots seemingly unchanged or weathered. Like the city itself. They seem to have an innate understanding of hard times and being rough around the edges. Three women speckle the story, not many, but as the director says in his reflections, we learn a lot about the three key male characters from these ladies. They are not to be underestimated.

Characters of a story often follow a destined path that lays out every move and plot turn for us. Our main characters end up in prison. We see the arrests of two and mere arrival of one after the fact. What do not see, which Hollywood feeds us regularly these days, is the lawyers, the appeals, courtroom scenes, the struggle to get out of prison or the campaigns to get free. Instead we simply cut from life, to prison with only a brief introduction to each key character. I love this. The story progresses not so much as a “get from point a to point b” kind of story, but more like a study of these characters. In essence it’s a study of the actors as if this is an intimate stage performance.

Jarmusch wrote the screen play in brief, and let the film be made on that same premise. Less is more. With Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful) as a leading performer, he had to let the reigns loose a bit and allow the Italian speaking actor to ad lib in several scenes. Because of the language barrier, the authentic communication problems that occur between the three men becomes that much more captivating. They are held together by the walls of the prison but come together as three individuals who seem to understand each other beyond culture and words.

With all of this going for it I can’t forget to say how really really funny the characters are at times. Hugely due to the talents and the personalities of the actors, but also because of the subtle, keenly observant dialogue. It’s not a “I laughed, I cried” kind of tale, but there’s a lot of smiling and a few good laughs. Sometimes you are not sure if it’s supposed to be funny exactly or tragic, that is what makes the writing so engaging.

Solid acting, excellent writing, exceptional directed and STUNNING cinematography are all ingredients for the treat of a film. The pace is set to a perfect flow, with the deliberate attention to details, to human moments, reactions, amazing scenery and photography. So many shots would be amazing prints to frame and hang on the wall. That mixed with the always appropriate, ambient music and intriguing story, well, this comes out a straight 10 in my book.

Value: 9/10
I always love a well done DVD with lots of extras and background information about the film and the makers .however I don’t always appreciate the price. This was a limited release DVD so the price tag is a bit steep for my tastes. Only as low as $25 online (if you find it cheaper, let me know!). That’s fair, don’t get me wrong, but if you are not a die hard DVD collector or fan of any players in this project, a rental would do the trick.

Overall: 10/10
Hmm, what do you think? Do I like this DVD? Oh yeah. I love the film and the extras are stellar. Even if you are not a DVD collector or fan, if you are looking for something a bit off the beaten path that is an impressive display of filmmaking, this is a must see!

Overall Score 10/10