2003 Milk Plus Droogies

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Kill Bill Vol. I

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Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

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Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

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Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

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Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

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David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

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Miranda Richardson, Spider

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Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

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Harris Savides, Gerry

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The Blog:
Thursday, May 27, 2004

Coffee and Cigarettes

Coffee and Cigarettes is made up of about a dozen short vignettes shot by writer/director Jim Jarmusch sporadically over the last decade, linked by the basic commonality of discussion over coffee and cigarettes. Some are short, some are long; some are rambling and unfocused; some have their own inner story arc; some are frivolous; a handful are hilarious; one is unexpectedly bittersweet and poetic; and some are even loosely linked through thematic threads. But the best thing that can be said about the collection is that on the whole it is a success for droll contemplation, if a minor one considering its hip minimalism and scattered production.

Which vignettes are the best most certainly depends on who one asks, though the clearest winners among the bunch-for example a back and for between Cate Blanchett playing herself and Cate Blanchett playing her not so successful and just a bit envious cousin-are impossible to dismiss. There is no way that putting the Wu-Tang Clan’s reigning figureheads Rza and Gza in the same room as an undercover Bill Murray or having Alfred Molina fawn over Steve Coogan’s career could not be highly amusing. These, among others, are Jarmusch’s more focused vignettes, and are connected through the underplayed commonality of the burdens of fame. Bill disguised as a waiter at a Turkish restaurant, both Rza and Tom Waits secretly lead of a double life as doctors, and Cate literally talking to her double about press junkets and the so-called perks of the famous underline Coffee and Cigarettes with more than simple hipster improvisation. These unified moments reveal the amusing oddity of confronting something as complicated as fame with something as simple as café conversations. The disparate split of life into daily functions (like comedian Steven Wright having to go to the dentist), the life of fame and all in between (like the Wu members jetting to the “udio" not to record but to play chess) is one that Jarmusch never elaborates on, but the film seems to offer variations on the theme in several different ways by simply confronting on person with anothe. Once connected, these more focused shorts feel more fulfilling, and their occasionally trite similarities (like lines repeated in several vignettes) are generally eased by the offhand nature of putting several more frivolous shorts amongst the obviously unified ones.

The other vignettes, often featuring actors that no one outside of the late 80s/early 90s independent circuit would recognize, are of more questionable value. But even the mediocre shorts juggle the film tonally and Jarmusch miraculously achieves a steady, contemplative rhythm to the collection despite the large period of time over which the series was shot. Sure, he could have exorcised the more frivolous sketches, in particular one with a lone Renee French carefully creating the perfect cup of coffee while reading gun mags and another with a couple of old Italians grumbling about the unhealthiness of java and smokes, but even those work by themselves in their own little way. Admittedly, put next to a sketch with Tom Waits and Iggy Pop uneasily insulting each other’s personality anything could look
inferior in comparison, but it must be said that some of the shorts don’t quite achieve poignancy they surely look the worse next to Coffee and Cigarettes' finest moments.

Unnecessary they made be, but the lesser shorts hardly bitter the taste of the film, as Jarmusch rightfully bookends the film with two completely different vignettes-beginning with Roberto Benigni inhaling espresso and questionably misunderstanding Steven Wright about taking his place at his dentist appointment and ending on a sad, sweet gem of a short with Bill Rice and Taylor Meade as melancholy poet-janitors. With its multitude of shorts, cast members, and slight variations of similar themes, perhaps the best thing about Coffee and Cigarettes is that its hip languidness. Its contemplative tone allows the perfect focal point of a similar discussion after the movie. The topic? Jarmusch’s (in)ability to center an entire film on something as mundane as a minimalist meal and simultaneously use both his famed talent and those of his collaborators (including cinematographers Frederick Elmes and Robber Muller, whose contribution to the film are questionable) to etch a picture of something deeper.