An infrequently updated dumping ground for one culture junkie's thoughts on film and whatever else

Sunday, April 26, 2009

I guess I should have posted this on Twitter? I don't even know anymore.

Does Wes Anderson know about Duncan Browne's Give Me Take You? Cuz these songs would all fit nicely up in his world. Or in any world.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Warden: Second prize is...Freedom.
Prisoners: Yay!
Warden: Neil Young on compact disc.
Prisoners: Boo!
Warden: ...with previously unreleased material.
Prisoners: Yay!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

There's a new axiom in town.

Seems everyone's going crazy over Jason Statham these days. It started with a blog post by Patton Oswalt titled GAY-THAM FOR STATHAM. Patton recognized that Statham is a force of authentic, exciting, hardworking badassery who transcends the sometimes-questionable quality of his films. Everyone, including me, is rather giddily looking forward to this weekend's release of Crank: High Voltage. (I caught up with the original Crank on DVD a couple weeks ago; it's everything a dumb action movie should be, and then some.)

So all this Statham love reminded me of something. Back in the sixties, French critic Michel Mourlet made what Dave Kehr calls "the single most notorious pronouncement in the history of film criticism" about Charlton Heston, referring to the actor as "an axiom of the cinema." Rereading the full quotation, it struck me that one could easily substitute Jason Statham's name in for Heston's and the result would be totally resonant for the growing cult of Statham-worshippers. So here is the full, doctored-up passage, courtesy Kehr's transcription:

“[Jason Statham] is an axiom. He constitutes a tragedy in himself, his presence in any film being enough to instill beauty. The pent-up violence expressed by the somber phosphorescence of his eyes, his eagle’s profile, the imperious arch of his eyebrows, the hard, bitter curve of his lips, the stupendous strength of his torso - this is what he has been given, and what not even the worst of directors can debase. It is in this sense that one can say that [Jason Statham], by his very existence and regardless of the film he is in, provides a more accurate definition of the cinema than films like Hiroshima Mon Amour or Citizen Kane, films whose aesthetic either ignores or repudiates [Jason Statham]. Through him, mise en scène can confront the most intense of conflicts and settle them with the contempt of a god imprisoned, quivering with muted rage.”

I am reminded of Armond White's similarly rapturous gushing over Transporter 3 (Armond is an axiom himself, really). A bit of Mourlet's homoerotic longing: "No star runs in character better than Statham," Armond swoons, "whose agile body is superbly sculpted while his voice remains tender—despite gruff edges." And just as Mourlet threw Citizen Kane and Hiroshima Mon Amour under the bus for either ignoring or repudiating Chuck Heston's glistening, quivering tragedy, so too does Armond dismiss the fall awards-season fare for not recognizing the Statham: "Nothing in cinema this week is more important than Transporter 3," begins his review. Call it hyperbole if you must, but once an actor has earned axiom status—and if Statham hasn't yet, he's well on his way—no words are too strong to describe our new "god imprisoned." Have you accepted Jason Statham as your personal lord and savior?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

First I observed, now I report

I wish I hadn't read anything about Observe and Report before seeing it. If I hadn't encountered the deluge of bemused reactions to the film's dark, Taxi Driver aspirations, I might've been surprised and delighted by its jarring tonal shifts instead of suspicious of them. But for better or worse, I knew going in that Jody Hill's new comedy would be subversive, that it would be weird, that it would be violent, that it would feature a protagonist modeled after Scorsese/DeNiro creations Travis Bickle and Rupert Pupkin. What I didn't know is how scattershot it would be, how lost-at-sea, especially compared to Hill's much more cohesive and tonally controlled HBO series Eastbound and Down. Alas, Observe and Report is more satisfying in theory than in execution, but its crazed half-vision has an undeniable pull.

Joining the parade of delusional, obsessive grotesques that dominates certain corners of modern comedy (including Hill's previous feature The Foot Fist Way and the aforementioned Eastbound and Down, both starring Southern-fried creep/hero Danny McBride) is Ronnie Barnhardt, head of mall security, bipolar, lonely, angry and convinced of his potential to do great things. The main difference—and it is a welcome one—between McBride's characters and Ronnie is the teddy-bear sweetness of Seth Rogen (giving his "fat years" a hell of a send-off). Rogen makes us care about this messed-up loser even as he descends into violent, psychotic behavior. It's a memorable character, and there's bold commitment to him on both sides of the camera, but the movie surrounding him is an indifferently assembled mishmash of scenes—some funny, some heartbreaking, some disturbing, some that just flat-out don't work. It's not that I'm against a mixture of tones, but there has to be a sense of some purposeful authority behind it all, and you don't really get that here.

The film is not without its triumphs, however. The ending, for one, is a masterstroke of offhanded gear-switching, an unpredictable head-scratcher that has led some to speculate on whether it might in fact be a fantasy in Ronnie's head. The picture is stocked with excellent musical selections, and Hill is quite good at incorporating them, even if he's clearly taking cues from Wes Anderson in that department (a key montage during Ronnie's "date" with would-be paramour Anna Faris is set to the gorgeous ballad "Brain" by obscure '60s mod-rockers The Action). Speaking of Faris, she's the funniest thing in the movie, and I wish she had more screen time; her dead-on caricature of vapid, pretty party-girls will be painfully familiar to anyone who's spent time in a high school recently—or, I suppose, at the makeup counter in the mall. And then there's the excitement of not really knowing where the hell this thing is going, and of the unapologetic (if ineptly directed) weirdness of it all. Ultimately, the movie is rather like Ronnie Barnhardt himself: unbalanced, incompetent, unpredictable, yet somehow coming through it all victoriously. No one is ever going to confuse Jody Hill with Marty Scorsese, but it still makes me happy that somebody tried to make Travis Bickle: Mall Cop—and that the resulting misshapen oddity is playing in actual malls across the country.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Unfortunate Progression of Whit Stillman's Brief Filmography

For me, the career of Whit Stillman forms a perfect downhill slope: it moves from the sublime (Metropolitan), to the mildly charming (Barcelona) to the unwatchably grating (Last Days of Disco). If he ever makes a fourth film, and if the pattern holds, it will be a suckfest of epic proportions. I think Stillman's one of those guys who really only had one great work in him (the sublime Metropolitan, in this case) and so there was nowhere to go but down. Maybe Stillman himself realized this and chose to spare us any further decline. I don't know, maybe there are people who love Last Days of Disco (it's currently streaming free on Hulu, which is what brings about this rumination), but to me it substantiates all the anti-Stillman arguments that weren't true of Metropolitan because it was so funny and sweet and sociologically fascinating—the whole "why should we care about these obnoxious, absurdly overprivileged, joyless snobs who speak in artificial screenwriter tongues?" line of thinking. Metropolitan is cannily predicated on the audience asking itself these very questions. In that film we ask those questions as a sort of defense mechanism because we are so immediately interested in these characters and we feel slightly ashamed about it—and then Stillman spends the balance of the film answering those questions, and we're like, "Ohhh, I get it." But in Disco, there is no "Ohhh, I get it" moment. The movie is a plotless black hole of stilted dialogue and sloppy characterization. It's a character-based drama without a single character to care about. It's a lifeless retread of Stillman's (and Noah Baumbach's) earlier, better comedies-of-manners. It's a period comedy without any period detail—or any laughs.

The only ill effect of Stillman's de facto retirement from filmmaking (and Baumbach's ascension to bigger and better things) is that the great Chris Eigeman seems to have a hard time getting work these days. Although apparently he did an episode of FRINGE. Nice.