Criterion is adding another great title to its collection of Jim Jarmusch films this week with the Blu-ray and DVD releases of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, a 1999 feature that ranks alongside Dead Man as one of the richest and most fascinating films by Jarmusch. Like Dead Man, Ghost Dog follows a stripped-down narrative that is extraordinarily complex due to the ingenious network of cinematic, literary and historical allusions that weaves through Jarmusch. In the hands of another director, the same story could be a routine genre programmer, but the power and depth of Jarmusch's philosophical vision elevates the film to a level of mythical grandeur while also packing the frame with realistic anthropological detail. While Dead Man ruffled the American Western, Ghost Dog fertilized two different traditions from two different cultures: The story of a killer for the mob who follows the code of the samurai combines the iconography and the linguistic motifs of the New York gangster images of directors like Martin Scorsese and Abel Ferrara deal with the thematic themes of Japanese Jidaigeki films – with a little French existentialism through Jean-Pierre Melville. This just scratches the surface of Ghost Dog's many references and influences, but what's amazing about the film is how original and lively it feels, and how neatly arranged; Jarmusch sums up his inspirations into an action film full of character that advances with incessant dynamism and yet finds time for a multitude of digressions that illustrate the movie's premises about honor, mortality and tribalism with clarity and wit. As with previous Criterion releases of Jarmusch's work, the new edition includes a Q&A session where the director answers questions sent by fans. Further additions are interviews with the casting director Ellen Lewis and the actors Forest Whitaker and Isaach De Bankole, a great video essay by the documentary filmmaker Daniel Raim on the music of the film and various materials for archiving.
Ghost Dog is one of two highly recommended Criterion releases this week. The other is an extras-laden press of the entertaining comedy Moonstruck from 1987. Moonstruck is an example of cinematic alchemy where just the right people came together at just the right time to create a near-perfect film. Directed by Norman Jewison with characteristic professionalism from a characteristically idiosyncratic John Patrick Shanley script. Shanley wrote the script of an accountant falling in love with her friendly but boring fiancé's wilder younger brother, facing Sally Field, but he was lucky when that didn't work and Cher stepped in as the lead. He was even luckier when Cher insisted on Nicolas Cage's unconventional (and unpopular among studio powers) choice to play her love interest, and the ultimate luck for Shanley and the audience was the material that fell into Jewison's hands. It was lucky for Jewison too – his sturdy craftsmanship and Shanley's wild eccentricity complement each other wonderfully, with Shanley's comical exuberance given weight and reality by Jewison's traditional approach and Jewison's slightly old-fashioned conservatism enlivened by Shanley's ruthless devotion. It's as if the film was shot by its two male protagonists, with Jewison playing the dependable, secure Danny Aiello and Shanley who play the role of the wildly romantic and fearless cage. The result is a classically constructed comedy that is bursting with joy and warmth and offers audience one reward after another, especially in the form of consistently delightful side appearances by John Mahoney, Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia and others. The release of Criterion includes a new broadcast monitored by Jewison, a great new interview with Shanley, audio commentary from Jewison, Shanley and Cher, and more. A 1989 AFI class recording with Shanley is so useful, with useful insights and inspiration, that the CD alone is indispensable.
A lesser known but funnier romantic comedy, Libeled Lady, is now available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archives. Released by MGM in 1937, Libeled Lady has the glitz and star power you'd expect from the studio, but there's an extra energy beneath the smooth surface thanks to Helmer Jack Conway, the spunkiest of all MGM contract directors. Spencer Tracy plays a columnist tasked with overturning a libel suit after his newspaper mistakenly tells a false story about heiress Myrna Loy. His solution: Pay fellow writer William Powell to marry Tracy's long-suffering girlfriend Carole Lombard, seduce Loy and let Lombard catch her together, and humiliate Loy with the following scandal before Lombard and Powell quickly get divorced. The situation gets more complicated from then on as real emotions develop between the four main characters, but cinematic juggler Conway holds all the balls of the plot in the air with seemingly effortless buoyancy. The film's 97 minutes pass with funny comic twists and turns and dialogues so fast that Aaron Sorkin would be green with envy. Also new from the Warner archives: Vincente Minnelli's 1948 musical The Pirate, one of the most exuberant lyrical musicals the director has ever made – which means it's one of the most exuberant lyrical musicals anyone has ever made. Nomadic circus performer Gene Kelly was traveling through a small village when he fell in love with the local girl Judy Garland at first sight. To win her over to Kelly, she poses as the great pirate of the local legend, a premise that allows Minnelli to stage a series of dance numbers in which Kelly spectacularly shows off his usual athleticism and the swashbuckling derring-do of Errol Flynn the graceful choreography for which Kelly herself was rightly famous merges with it. A top-notch Cole Porter score, stunning Technicolor photographs by Harry Stradling and some of the finest close-ups ever shot in the form of Minnelli's meticulous pictures of his then-wife Judy Garland make The Pirate one of the flood marks in MGM history. Musicals.
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, which is currently streamed on Amazon Prime and Tubi. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.