Weekend Cinema Listomania (Special There Are No Small Parts! Edition)

on June 11, 2010 by Steve Simels

jones_mystery_train.jpgVideo Event of the Week: Might we be talking about Paramount's DVD version of Shutter Island, the stylish but ultimately unsatisfying Gothic horror from the great Martin Scorsese? Could Warner Home Video's Blu-ray upgrade of Caddyshack, the gloriously vulgar lowbrow comedy classic starring Rodney Dangerfield, conceivably make the cut? Or -- and I think this highly unlikely -- might Lionsgate's various disc versions of From Paris With Love, the very loud and stupid action film with John Travolta doing a bad Vin Diesel act, by any chance be The One?

All worthy, to be sure (except for that last, obviously) but for my money it's just got to be the Criterion Collection's fabulous new DVD edition of Mystery Train, Jim Jarmusch's drolly deadpan 1989 Comedy of Memphis.

Jarmusch's ironic minimalism isn't to everybody's taste, I suppose, but once you get past the hepster affectations his films are often rather sweet, a description that certainly applies to Mystery Train, which like a lot of his work, including Stranger Than Paradise, is about (among other things) the odd and seemingly inexplicable things that happen when cultures collide. This one tells three interconnected stories taking place on the same night downtown in the city where the classic Elvis Presley title song was recorded; my favorite features two adorable sort of punkish Japanese kids making a pilgrimage to the Sun Records studio that birthed said song, but they're eventually linked by the seedy hotel all the characters are staying at. Said hotel, incidentally, features Jarmusch favorite Screamin' Jay Hawkins as the crankiest night clerk in screen history; it's perhaps no exaggerration to say that Hawkins steals every scene he's in.

Here's a clip to give you a little idea of the film's off kilter charm.

Throughout, Jarmusch makes characteristically effective use of a large ensemble cast, in this case balancing quirky but dependable pros (Steve Buscemi) and musical icons (Joe Strummer of The Clash, Memphis r&b patriarch Rufus Thomas). I would also be remiss at this point if I failed to mention that the Ghost of Elvis (seen in the photo up top) is played by none other than Steve Jones, who in the 90s would achieve his fifteen minutes (actually, somewhat less than that) of fame as husband to presidential sexual harrassment accuser Paula Jones. Thus does history play strange tricks even on films directed by apolitical aesthetes like Jarmusch.

In any case, Criterion's video transfer is terrific, reproducing the director's generally cool, muted color schemes to terrific effect, and yes, Screamin' Jay's red uniform really pops, as they say. Minimalist, but interesting bonuses, included a lengthy excerpt from a 2001 documentary on the singer's life and work, plus an e-mail Q&A with Jarmusch.

Bottom line: A terrific little film in an exemplary presentation; You can -- and definitely should -- pre-order Mystery Train here.

And now, since it's going to be relatively quiet around here for a couple of days, here's a fun and probably relevant little project for us all:

Best or Worst Big Screen Performance By a Non-Actor (Celebrity or Otherwise) in a Comedy or Drama!!!

I would like to stipulate for the record at this point that I really really wanted to include former New York City mayor John Lindsay for his performance in the 1975 Otto Preminger spy thriller misfire Rosebud, but I could find neither a still photo or video clip to illustrate it. Let's just say that Lindsay, admittedly a movie star handsome dude, was unconvincing in his impersonation of a politician. Come to think of it, the same could be said of his tenure as Mayor.

Also, I suspect I may have done a similar Listomania at some point, but I'm reasonably sure most of my nominees here are different.

And that said, my totally top of my head Top Five is...

5. Tony Bennett in The Oscar (Russell Rouse, 1966)

A legendarily bad performance, and time has not diminished its awfulness, thank god.

4. Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946)

Fun fact: In the original novel (but not the movie adaptation) of Terry Southern's The Magic Christian, the titular prankster rents a revival theater and advertises a showing of Best Years. The paying audience, however, is unaware that said prankster had filmed a brief ten second scene of star Russell boinking some woman on a kitchen floor and inserted it into the print being shown. Heh heh.

3. Joseph Welch in Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959)

The acerbic Welch, who pretty much shut down Red-baiting SOB Sen. Josephy McCarthy all by himself, was an American folk hero when the canny Preminger cast him as the judge here, although many people (myself included) have been disappointed over the years that he doesn't get to repeat his "At long last, have you no sense of decency left" signature line.

2. Truman Capote in Murder By Death (Robert Moore, 1976)

Stunt casting at its worst. Neil Simon's detective spoof is otherwise one of the funniest films of the 70s, but Capote's performance here pretty much stops it cold.

And the Numero Uno performance by a person otherwise not celebrated for their thespic skills unquestionably is --

1. Howard Jarvis in Airplane! (David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, 1980)

The Prop 13 anti-tax nut who essentially destroyed the economy of California for all time as the long suffering patron of the cab abandoned by star Robert Hays. And who amongst us has not marvelled at his unaffected delivery of the film's final line ""Well, I'll give him another twenty minutes, but that's it!"

Alrighty then -- and what would your choices be?

Tags: Jim Jarmusch, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Steve Buscemi

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