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DVD Review HTF Review: Coffee and Cigarettes

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Jason Perez, Sep 12, 2004.

  1. Jason Perez

    Jason Perez Second Unit

    Jul 6, 2003
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    Coffee and Cigarettes

    Studio: MGM
    Year: 1986-2003
    Rated: R
    Running Time: 97 minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 16x9 Enhanced Widescreen (1.78:1)
    Subtitles: English, French, and Spanish
    Audio: English – Dolby Digital 5.1

    Release Date:
    September 21st, 2004

    Clearly, vices like smoking and drinking do not appeal to everyone. Indeed, even a brief survey will find that some people consider smoking to be a disgusting, dirty habit, while other folks are absolutely addicted to the buzz they get from cancer sticks. After watching writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s (Stranger Than Paradise) intriguing collection of short films, titled Coffee and Cigarettes, I believe the unusual nature and slow pace this work has the potential to create the same divisive effect on its viewers that its titular substances can. That being the case, I still found it a very worthwhile viewing experience. Here is why…

    First off there is no central plot or story. Instead, over the course of Coffee and Cigarettes’ running time, Jarmusch guides viewers through eleven eclectic, and sometimes very funny, conversations. These segments, filmed at various points in time between 1986 and 2003, are moody and atmospheric, and the conversations/interactions between characters (over coffee and cigarettes, of course!) is where all of the action lies. In my opinion, although there are a few uneven segments, Coffee and Cigarettes delivers plenty of laughs, especially if you can appreciate subtle humor. It is also unexpectedly insightful about the important role that simple, everyday experiences (like enjoying a cup of coffee) play in our lives.

    Interestingly, although the conversations vary considerably from piece to piece, all of them do share certain characteristics that tie them together. To begin with, the majority of the characters enjoy the titular items of coffee and cigarettes during these vignettes (duh!). Secondly, despite being captured on film by several different cinematographers in different places and at different times, each short is presented in black-and-white. Perhaps most importantly though, each of these eleven shorts plays a role in expounding on Jarmusch’s theme - that the interaction between two people who sit down to enjoy a smoke or a cup of java together constitutes a very important shared experience.

    A different sort of similarity amongst these scenes can be found in the quality of the performances turned in by the diverse cast, which is a conglomeration of A-list talent, respected character actors, and musicians! The more notable members of the cast - Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, Steve Buscemi, and Alfred Molina – are joined by members of the rap group Wu-Tang clan, rockers the White Stripes, and comedian (well, some people think he is funny) Steven Wright, among others, who then participate in free-form conversations over cups of joe and a cigarette or two. What do I mean by “free-form”? Well, some of the unusual topics of discussion you can expect to find in these shorts are the lack of nutritional value in a lunch consisting of coffee and cigarettes, the idea of making “caf-pops” or Popsicles out of coffee, the genius of Nikola Tesla, and how Elvis’ evil twin brother dragged him down, just to name a few.

    Unfortunately, while the eclectic nature of these conversations was interesting to me, I can see how it would turn some people off. What is more, the unusual conversation material results in some shorts being chock-full of humor, others being amusing on a smaller scale, and some ending up being just plain weird. The segment that I enjoyed most was “Delirium”, featuring the legendary Bill Murray, who plays a caffeine-addicted waiter that interrupts a conversation about alternative medicine between hip-hop stars RZA and GZA, and then sits down with them to chat about the properties of caffeine and his smoker’s cough.

    There are some other standout shorts, including one featuring Steve Buscemi as a goofy waiter who insists on pushing his insane theories about Elvis Presley’s evil twin brother on a pair of twins, the profanity laden “Those Thing’ll Kill Ya”, with Joe Rigano and Vinny Vella, and another titled “Cousins?”, that features Alfred Molina (Spiderman 2) informing Steve Coogan that they are distant relatives.

    A bit more detail on each of the eleven segments of Coffee and Cigarettes is provided below.

    --- “Strange to Meet You”
    Shortly after meeting, Roberto (Roberto Benigni) and Steven (Steven Wright) engage in a discussion about what a great pair coffee and cigarettes make. Later, Steven reveals that he has a dentist appointment that he badly wants to get out of, and Roberto comes up with a truly bizarre solution to his new buddy’s problem.

    --- “Twins”
    In “Twins”, a heated disagreement between two twins (Cinqué and Joie Lee) is interrupted by an odd waiter (Steve Buscemi), who tells the siblings crazy tales about how Elvis Presley’s twin brother was ultimately responsible for the “King’s” downfall. The parties then enter into a spirited debate about whether or not Elvis “borrowed” musical ideas!

    --- “Somewhere in California”
    In this segment, musicians Tom Waits and Iggy Pop banter about how Tom moonlights as a doctor, the wonders of giving up smoking, and the fact that the jukebox does not contain any of Iggy’s music. Filmed in 1992, this segment won Best Short Film at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival!

    --- “Those Things’ll Kill Ya”
    In this hilarious short, Joe (Joe Rigano) cannot believe that Vinny (Vinny Vella) has not given up smoking, and chastises him for it, but Vinny says that he has become addicted and is unable to quit. Vinny then turns the tables on Joe by bringing up his fondness for coffee.

    --- “Renée”
    During this short, Renée (Renée French) is relaxing in a restaurant when a waiter ruins her coffee with an unwanted refill (apparently it had been the perfect temperature and color), and then opines that coffee and cigarettes is not a healthy lunch.

    --- “No Problem”
    In “No Problem”, Isaach (Isaach de Bankole) is worried that his friend Alex (Alex Descas) is keeping a secret from him, despite Alex’s repeated denials.

    --- “Cousins”
    While at a press junket, Cate (Cate Blanchett) meets her cousin Shelly (also played by Blanchett) in the lounge of her posh hotel. As the two continue talking, tension rises when it becomes apparent that Shelly is more than a little jealous of Cate’s success.

    --- “Jack Shows Meg His Tesla Coil”
    In this sshort, Jack (Jack White) excitedly displays a Tesla Coil, built to Nikola Tesla’s original specification, to Meg (Meg White). When Jack fires the coil up, it gives off an eerie light show, until something goes wrong and the device quits in a puff of smoke. At this point, Jack is forced to consider the possible reasons for the malfunction thrown his way by both Meg and the “Kitchen Guy” (Cinqué Lee).

    --- “Cousins?”
    When Alfred (Alfred Molina) invites Steve (Steve Coogan) to meet him at a Los Angeles eatery, explains that he has discovered they are cousins, and reveals his desire that they work together, Coogan blows him off. Indeed, Mr. Coogan is so strongly opposed to this idea, that he seems to want to avoid further contact of any kind with his cousin Alfred – at least until an unexpected phone call causes him to rethink his previous statements and actions.

    --- “Delirium”
    In “Delirium”, things kick off with rapper GZA having a friendly chat with his pal RZA, who has been studying alternative medicine for two years. Their discussion is then interrupted by the legendary Bill Murray (in a waiter’s outfit), who offers them coffee, despite the fact that both rappers have sworn off caffeine. Bill then sits down with the two hip-hop stars and joins them in a discussion about interesting topics like nicotine’s use in pesticides, after which the musicians suggest some alternative ways that Mr. Murray might try to treat his cough.

    Wu Tang forever! [​IMG]

    --- “Champagne”
    In this short, Taylor (Taylor Mead) and Bill (Bill Rice) discuss their philosophical differences about coffee.

    Throughout these short films, Jim Jarmusch’s skill as a director is evident, but the most impressive thing about these vignettes (for me), is how clearly it comes across that the actors were having a blast participating in them. As I mentioned, they do vary in quality (from side-splittingly funny to a small few that tread the thin line between mediocrity and boredom), but for the most part, these shorts are genuinely interesting, and infused with enough bizarre qualities to keep viewers interested throughout.

    Hell, even though I had to struggle through a couple of scenes that were not exactly riveting (“Champagne” and “Renée” come to mind), the inspired performances, which likely stemmed from Jarmusch encouraging his cast to explore their “characters” and indulge in the moment, made even these less entertaining scenes worth sitting through! Granted, this may not be everyone’s cup of coffee, and even I don’t think I could drink this brew every day, but if you are in the mood to take a break from the traditional feature film, Coffee and Cigarettes might be just the ticket!

    Surprisingly, since the 11 shorts that comprise Coffee and Cigarettes were put on film by several different cinematographers over the course of two decades, the 16x9 enhanced images (1.78:1) look remarkably consistent! A couple of segments (notably “Renée” and “Somewhere in California”) do look noticeably softer than the rest, but in general the monochromatic visuals are sharp, detailed, and free from blemishes and debris. To be sure, there is some film grain visible, but it never served as a distraction – if anything, it added to the atmosphere of these shorts. Furthermore, blacks exhibit satisfying levels of depth and definition, and contrast also appeared pretty well balanced throughout the shorts.

    The grayscale is nicely rendered as well, for although the environments the characters converse in are fairly similar, the differences in the skin tones and clothing of the actors are apparent. Compression of the film for DVD also appears to have been done carefully, as evidence of edge-enhancement, aliasing, and other digital artifacts is absent.

    Quite honestly, there is not a whole lot to complain about, in terms of the effort that MGM put in to bring Coffee and Cigarettes to DVD, as these shorts looked very good!

    Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes is a very quiet and atmospheric film, and I am really not sure that it benefits much from a 5.1 mix, but that is what MGM has given us so let me tell you a little about it. Most importantly for me, since dialogue constitutes much of the audio information in this series of short films, speech is reproduced quite nicely. Indeed, the actors’ unique voices, from Stephen Wright’s low, emotionless speech to Joe Rigano’s scratchy, nearly inaudible voice, to the luscious, silky tones of Cate Blanchett emanate from the speakers in a warm, rich fashion, without any hissing or sibilance. Once again, since the bulk of the audio information in Coffee and Cigarettes consisted of dialogue, I have to say that I was pleased by this.

    Micro-dynamic details, like the clinking of spoons on coffee cups and plates, the coarse sound of newspaper pages turning, and of cigarette lighters (or BBQ lighters! [​IMG] in Bill Murray’s case) setting cigarettes ablaze also exhibit realism in their timbres. Now as you might expect from a series of conversations, the center-channel does all the heavy lifting, and the subwoofer and surround channels are virtually silent throughout the shorts. However, as the source material really doesn’t call for them to be used much, I think it would be quite unfair to be overly critical of this. Indeed, about the only time the soundstage opens up even a little bit is when Jack White turns on his Tesla Coil.

    To sum things up, if you are expecting a spacious, exciting aural experience you are barking up the wrong tree, but if you want a respectable presentation of the source material, you should be just fine with Coffee and Cigarettes’ Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack!


    This strange, unnecessary (in my opinion, anyway) extra features clips of the tabletops (usually from a bird’s eye view) that the various characters in Coffee and Cigarettes were drinking and smoking at, set to the sounds of “Midnight Jam” by Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros.

    Bill Murray Outtake
    The “Bill Murray” outtake is essentially a funny alternate ending for the “Delirium” short, where viewers get to see what was in the bag that GZA gave to “BillMurray”.

    Interview With Taylor Mead
    During this brief (4 minute) and mildly amusing interview, Taylor Mead reveals that Jim Jarmusch had been promising him a film role for many years, and then opines on how great Cate Blanchett was in the film, and about how famous Coffee and Cigarettes is going to make him.

    Trailer and Promotional Materials
    The two-minute trailer for Coffee and Cigarettes is included, as are a couple of pages revealing the songs available on the film’s soundtrack.


    (on a five-point scale)
    Film: [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Video: [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Audio: [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Extras: [​IMG] [​IMG]
    Overall: [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG] [​IMG]

    Although it is not a film in a traditional sense, I think Coffee and Cigarettes’ light-hearted tone make this one of Jim Jarmusch’s most “commercial” film endeavors to date. Further, although each of these scenes just features “characters” sitting around and talking, the conversations are varied enough to remain interesting, and the majority are quite funny if you have an appreciation for subtle humor.

    Given the eclectic makeup of the cast, I was pleasantly surprised to find the acting to be top notch throughout, and it was especially exciting to see such gifted actors be given the freedom to play stylized versions of themselves! I could be very wrong, but I think all of these factors should help those who could not get into Jarmusch’s more stylized work, like Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, find this charming, offbeat series of short films to be a breath of fresh air. Now isn’t that an ironic statement to make, when talking about a movie that features so much cigarette smoking?

    For its release on DVD, Coffee and Cigarettes has been graced with a pretty nice audio/visual treatment by MGM, but the disc is not exactly jam-packed with special features. Indeed, you can breeze through all of the extras in about ten minutes, and aside from the Bill Murray outtake, I cannot imagine watching any of the other bonus materials more than once. However, the star attraction here is the film, and again, it looks and sounds fine.

    I will end this review by coming full circle to offer the same opinion I opened it with: I believe that this is a film that people will probably not be on the fence about. You will either appreciate the acting, direction, offbeat subject matter, and subtle humor, or it will bore you. Given that, I am a little hesitant to recommend Coffee and Cigarettes outright, but if this work sounds appealing to you I would definitely suggest giving it a spin! It sure is interesting to see some of these actors plying their trade in environments that are so different from what they might ordinarily be seen in…

    Stay tuned…
  2. Magnus T

    Magnus T Supporting Actor

    Jan 26, 2003
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    Except for the Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina segment this was one boring film. IMO, of course.
  3. Paul Strilka

    Paul Strilka Stunt Coordinator

    Feb 10, 2004
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    Love Jarmusch. After hearing about these shorts for years it was great to finally see them on the screen. I'll admit some of them are tough to sit through even for a Jarmusch die hard. Not sure this has repeat viewing desire. More extras would have helped. Worth a rent.
  4. DonRoeber

    DonRoeber Screenwriter

    Feb 11, 2001
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    I saw this film in the theaters a month ago. Really enjoyed it. Nearly all of the segments were great, with my favorite being the last. Bill Murray's segment was actually my least favorite. I guess I'm just liking him more in his more serious roles.

    I think the tabletops were very interesting. If I remember correctly, nearly all of them were checkerboard style. They were certainly very important to each segment.
  5. ChrisBEA

    ChrisBEA Screenwriter

    Jul 19, 2003
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    I enjoyed this film, the interaction of the pairing's were great. Not entirely successful, but an entertaining experiment.
    Nice review, Thanks!
  6. Matt Fisher

    Matt Fisher Second Unit

    Aug 4, 2004
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    I just picked up the film, why is it that they don't include an insert with this DVD? Is that MGM's doings? I bought it at Best Buy, so no don't ask me if it's some bootleg...

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