Monday, December 31, 2007

JUNO - WTF?

Anyone looking to hop on the anti-JUNO bandwagon, the line starts here.

OK, here’s my deal with JUNO: I didn’t hate the movie. I was hating it for a bit, but then it got a little better and by the time it was done I didn’t feel like I wanted to kill anyone involved in its making, but I sure as hell don’t get the hype. I don’t understand just what the hell people are seeing in this one. Roger Ebert named it the best picture of 2007. Huh? It’s getting raves all around and a huge Rotten Tomatoes score. And to make matters worse, it’s probably going to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. What’s up with that?

Fellow haters (or just plain dislikers) join in with me: It ain’t that good, people!

JUNO is a movie with a serious case of The Cutes. Say what you will about the likes of Judd Apatow, his movies usually avoid The Cutes while JUNO swims in a ocean of them. This isn’t an organically quirky movie, like a Wes Anderson or Coen Brothers picture; it’s quirky by design. The lead character in it would hate this movie because she would recognize it for what it truly is: A poseur, plain and simple.

Oh, and let’s discuss this lead character, OK? I understand that she’s nothing more than a 16 year-old girl, but I can’t remember the last movie I saw where the lead character was this obnoxious and unlikable. I’m sure you JUNO fans will just say that I don’t understand teenage girls (and the debate on whether or not that’s accurate is something for another time) but I know when I actively dislike spending time in the company of one and I sure did here. It wasn’t a matter of disliking Ellen Page, who I think is an excellent actress and is probably a little too on-the-mark here, but it's a matter of this character as written. She doesn’t sound like a real person, she sounds like the product of a screenplay, and is so overly cute and quirky that she gives those terms a bad name. I have this thing about “wish writing”, when characters talk in the manner that the writer thinks is cool and clever (which I personally find very amateurish) is always a strike against with me. Juno the character isn’t cool at all, just someone’s idea of what a cool person should be, and cool is something that can never be processed but must be natural. JUNO is very much processed cool.

And I want to make it clear that this isn’t just the fault of the film’s script, because director Jason Reitman deserves a lot of the blame, too. I very much enjoyed his debut feature, THANK YOU FOR SMOKING, a smart film with a lot of satirical bite, but I have no idea what the hell possessed him to make JUNO so damn lame. Actually, I know what is was - it was the wearing out of his Criterion Collection DVD for RUSHMORE, that’s what, as this is a film that desperately wants nothing more than to be it. From the soundtrack (dear god, it makes me hate music I usually like!) to the camera moves and the editing, Jason Reitman has a serious case of the Wes Anderson flu and I would appreciate it if he were quarantined for a while so that others don’t catch it. I suspect that Reitman’s heart is really in picture like SMOKING, a movie that wasn’t afraid to be unpopular, as opposed to a JUNO, which wants desperately to be loved. The unfortunate thing is that people are falling for it and I am, quite frankly, dumbfounded. The reviews, the awards talk, where does all this come from? I saw the film Friday night in a packed suburban N.J. multiplex that was packed with teenagers and they’re going to turn this into a bigger hit than anyone’s anticipating. But the thing that’s really getting to me is how this film will get several totally undeserving Oscar nominations at the end of the month. This has been such a good year for movies, to have a lame picture like this one be in the running is a little depressing. It’s not the state of Pakistan depressing, but it ain’t fun, either. I also saw MARGOT AT THE WEDDING over the weekend, and while the two films aren’t exactly 100% alike, it gets more laughs and sympathy for its extremely flawed (but fascinating) characters than JUNO does because they act like real people and it’s all the more memorable for it, too. It’s the kind of picture I expected Reitman to keep on making after SMOKING, not this.

So having said all this, I would like to point out JUNO’s one saving grace: Jennifer Garner. Funny thing was, I was talking to a friend of mine about her thus-far lackluster film career and how she’ll probably be back on TV in a few short years, and here she almost single handedly save JUNO from the worst of the year list. Garner, as the working woman who wants to adopt Juno’s baby, is the one thing in this film that feels genuine. I’ve known one or two women like Garner’s character and she nails the character surprisingly well and, best of all (and I credit the filmmakers with this, too) she’s not made out to be a bitch or anything like that. It’s like, OK, she’s not perfect, she has some flaws, but what she wants is genuine and it comes completely from the heart. Thank god for her, because Garner gives JUNO some genuine heart and a much-needed element of surprise. This was a picture I had hoped to like going in, but I spotted the warning signs early on and if it wasn’t for Garner I probably would be able to make it through. I strongly suspect that I’m not alone on this one, so if you’re not a member of the Juno MacGuff fan club, speak now. Please!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas from Headquarters 10!

Like a lot of folks, we'll be taking off for the next several days, enjoying the holidays, spending time with family, eating too damn much and seeing a lot of movies. In the meantime, enjoy some holiday images from all around this damn fine country of ours.

New York City


Austin, TX


Madison, NJ


And a greeting from everyone's mayor, Tommy Shanks:



Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Santapalooza 2007 Secrets Revealed!

If you’re a friend of mine (and you should be – I’m awesome!) you’ve probably already received your copy of Santapalooza 2007. If you’re a friend and you haven’t, then you might want to ask yourself just how good a friend you’ve been to me this past year. Seriously, think about it.

Santapalooza, for those not yet in the know, is my annual Christmas greeting by way of a mix CD. Greeting cards got to be so damn boring and as CD-Rs became more accessible I had the idea of putting together a holiday mix tape, figuring I had enough “good stuff” to last about 2 or 3 years. I’m now on the 6th edition and there’s pretty much no end in site. Every year I pick up new music and keep my eyes and ears peeled for interesting new items to be found (I recently found a pristine 45rpm of a song so wrong that there’s no way I can’t include it on next year’s edition), so I figure this will be an almost lifelong ongoing project. As someone who loves the holiday and especially the music that comes with it, this whole thing is a labor of love and as long as I can find the right tunes to make merry with Santapalooza will keep going.

This year I’d like to give a little insight into the decision process and what songs all of you non-friends (or, as I prefer to call you, those who are not yet friends) are missing from the 2007 edition. So here we go…

“Let’s Unite the Whole World at Christmastime” (James Brown) – James Brown has been on every edition thus far and he’ll be there until I run out of James Brown Christmas songs to use. “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” and “Let’s Make Christmas Mean Something This Year” have already been used up, so the time had come for this nice little number to earn its place. Besides, the man died on Christmas Day last year, so how could I not start this year’s edition off with him?

“All I Want For Christmas is You” (Carla Thomas) – Having already used her wonderful “Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas”, I’ve been waiting to include this second holiday hit from Ms. Thomas and it sounded just right to me coming after Mr. Brown.

“Everyday Will Be Like A Holiday” (William Brown) – I’d originally objected to using this one, even though it’s a fine song, because it never once mentions the Christmas holiday and I like to be Christmas specific (that’s what’s kept Blondie’s “I’m Touched By Your Presence, Dear” off the mix). But they have the jingling bells in the background and it’s pretty obvious what holiday they’re talking about, so on it went. And I was going for a quiet, soulful opening to the CD this year, anyway, so this fit right in.

“Christmas Everyday” (The Miracles) – Classic Smokey Robinson tune that I simply didn’t have in my collection until last year, so I was happy to find a place for it.

“Christmas Twist” (Twistin’ Kings) – This comes off of A Motown Christmas Volume 2 and it’s a delightful little number, so how could I not include it? Besides, it represented a perfect lead-in to the next little number…

“We Want To See Santa Do the Mambo” (Big John Greer) – Taken off the famed Rhino Hipster’s Holiday CD, I’d never had it in my collection until recently, so in this went. Such a delightful song, impossible not to include or dance to.

“Mambo Santa Mambo” (The Enchanters) – An obvious follow-up and a better song if you ask me. I could do an entire CD of Christmas dance songs. Why don’t I? Hmmmm…

“Papa Noel” (Brenda Lee) – This one fit just right after the mambo tunes and it’s such a wonderfully joyous song, too. “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree” may be Brenda Lee’s Christmas classic, but this one is easily her best.

“Jingle Bell Boogie” (Jody Levins) – I got this one off of one of the greatest Christmas albums of all time, Rockabilly Christmas from Buffalo Bop Records, an amazing collection of original rockabilly holiday .45s. I’ve been diving into that disc for several years now and it was simply this song’s turn. It also made for a perfect lead-in to the next batch of songs, all of them a Santapalooza first.

“Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy” (Buck Owens) – 2007 marks the first time I’ve ever included any country & western music in a Santapalooza. The reasons for this is because I’d never come across a song I felt was worth including and this year I found three! I decided to start with this one because it was the most upbeat and like “Jingle Bell Boogie”, you can dance to it.

“Merry Texas Christmas, You All” (Gene Autry) – Autry was, of course, a holiday song master and I loved this one the moment I first heard it off a comp I got last year on a buying spree at Amoeba in Hollywood. This is an absolutely lovely little ditty and it also works as a holiday greeting to my many friends in Austin, to whom this track is dedicated.

“Santa’s Comin’ in a Big Ol’ Truck” (Red Simpson) – Red Simpson. Trucker’s Christmas. Own it. Love it.

“Silver Bells” (The Yobs) – I’ve been looking to get my hands on this one for years but have never found it in any store and was too cheap to order it on Amazon. It’s a great punk rock version of the classic tune and it just kills. There’s an entire Yobs Christmas album which I’ve got to pick up one of these days.

“Hooray for Santy Claus!” (Milton Delugg and the Little Eskimos) – Hooray for 7 Black Notes, which helped me finally get a copy of Rhino’s long OOP Golden Turkey Awards LP, which included this theme to SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS. And you know what? This song isn’t so bad.

“Lonely Pup (in a Christmas Shop)” (Adam Faith) – I got this one through work, coming off of a collection of Faith’s old U.K. singles, available on CD in a limited pressing. One of the last songs to be introduced to me before I started putting together this year’s CD, it’s a nice little ditty and it’s only about 2 minutes long, so why the hell not?

“Santa Claus” (Jerry Clayton) – Another one from Rockabilly Christmas. Pretty damn great if you ask me.

“It’s About That Time” (The Idea) – Who were The Idea? Hell if I know, but they appeared on a very nice compilation from 1991 called Yuletunes from Black Vinyl Records, which contained a lot of great power pop and 90s alternative Christmas stuff. I think it’s long out of print, so I’m glad I’ve still got my copy.

“Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” (Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band) – As you can tell by this list, I try to stay away from many of the “classic” holiday tunes, but I must admit I’ve always liked this one, and on top of that, the wife of a friend of mine has always wondered why I’ve never included it (I’m assuming it’s a favorite of hers), so here it is, finally.

“Last Christmas” (Sarge) – The cult of Wham’s “Last Christmas” kind of astounds me. It’s by no means a bad song, but Jesus Christ, some people treat this like it’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” There’s even a website devoted to the damn thing! I figured I would include it eventually and this version comes from the band Sarge, a late 90s Detroit band that I liked that, sadly, no longer exist. If you want to debate which version of “Last Christmas” is the best that’s fine with me, but don’t expect me to include it on another Santapalooza.

“Merry Christmas Will Do” (Material Issue) – Fine holiday break-up song from the long-gone Chicago power poppers, again from the Yuletunes collection. I seem to have a break-up theme going this year (which is odd, because I didn't break up with anyone), so it fit very well.

“Christmas Never Comes (When You’re Alone)” (Tralala) – This song (and band) were not on my radar when I found this 3-song EP in the used bin at Kim’s in the East Village on Memorial Day 2006, but I took a chance and liked what I heard. Couldn’t find a place for it last year, but this year it’s a perfect fit with its “Dumped at Christmas” theme.

“Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time!” (Sufjan Stevens) – This was part of Stevens’ 2006 holiday mix (found in his big Christmas box set) that I got last year and it’s my favorite of all the originals in that set. I’m told it was a free download on ITunes last year, but I never use it, so what does that mean to me? I still like the song.

“Calling on Mary” (Aimee Mann) – Everyone is recording a Christmas album these days (even Billy Idol), but if a Christmas release means the great Aimee Mann will get a bigger audience, I’m all for that. Besides, she’s been recording holiday singles for years, so a full album was a given. This wonderful song is a bit more downbeat than most, but I can’t get it out of my head most days. Too good a song to be heard just at Christmas.

“Morning Christmas” (Dennis Wilson) – Even though the song is credited to The Beach Boys and featured on the most recent BB Christmas compilation, the liner notes make it clear that this is a solo effort from Dennis Wilson, and it’s a beautiful piece all around. “Forever” remains one of my favorite BB songs and this makes me want to seek out his solo albums (neither still on CD). Anyone out there have them? Care to share?

“Merry Christmas Hollywood” (Vic Mizzy) – Wonderful little ditty from the composer of The Addams Family theme, among many other musical highlights, from his 2003 album Songs for the Jogging Crowd. This one came to my attention through my friend Chris Poggali. Thanks, Chris!

And if you're looking for some fantastic music to tune in to during the holidays, please try the following:

Michael Shelley's 2006 Christmas show on WFMU

Dave the Spazz's 2005 Christmas Show on WFMU

Hova's 2000 Christmas Day show on WFMU

For more on great holiday music, check out the amazing Mistletunes website.


Oh, and Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Dick Miller Blog-A-Thon

Why Dick Miller is my favorite actor I don’t think I’ll ever know. There are plenty of other actors I love and admire – Burt Lancaster, Harrison Ford, Sam Neill, John Payne – but Dick Miller trumps them all. I see Dick Miller in a movie, usually not for very long, and I’m momentarily very happy, no matter how awful the movie can be, because there’s my guy, my favorite actor. I suppose you can look upon Dick as a guy who comes in, does his thing and does it well, and then gets out, like a true character actor, but there has always been something about Dick to me that has made him more than a mere actor. Dick Miller has a natural quality to him, the appearance that he’s not actually acting but that he’s that guy, a real guy who happens to be in this movie. I’m not talking method acting here, but I’m when I’m watching THE TERMINATOR and I see Dick playing the gun shop owner who tells Schwarzenegger that any one of his machine guns are “ideal for home defense”, I don’t see the actor, I see the gun shop owner, and not just any gun shop owner, but the guy who owns my local gun shop, a next door neighbor or friend of my dad’s who I’ve known in one way or another all of my life. I see Dick Miller on screen and suddenly I get very comfortable. In a rather odd way, I see an old friend up there.

It’s not quite like Dick Miller is an actor who dominates a film with an astounding presence, because he has the look and feel of a character actor, which he unquestionably is. He’s only had one leading role in his entire career, in Roger Corman’s great black comedy A BUCKET OF BLOOD, and though he was terrific in it, Dick didn’t have that “leading man” aspect to him, so he never got those parts. BUCKET apparently did well, but it wasn’t like they were breaking Dick’s door down, so he continued on doing small roles mainly in Corman productions and eventually films made by graduates of the Corman system, people like Jonathan Kaplan, Alan Arkush, Steve Carver and, of course, Joe Dante, the man who has probably done more to grow the Dick Miller legend than Miller himself. I suppose some actors might be bitter about it (and it’s possible Dick has been), but Dick has had a career that’s spawned over 50 years and not a lot of actors can say that. And if you ask me, what a career it’s been.

Dick’s forte has been mainly exploitation and genre films, with the occasional drama or western and a lot of TV work, but so many of those films are among the best of their genres and Dick easily stood out in them. Can you imagine LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, GREMLINS 1 & 2 or HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD without Dick Miller? Don’t even try. A lot of Dick’s films happen to be classics of their genres and that’s no doubt led to his respectable following over the years. I think one of the reasons I like Dick so much is because I discovered him at around the same time I discovered the great drive-in and exploitation movies of Corman and New World Pictures as a kid and so I guess I associate my love of Dick with my love of those films, which is pretty vast. Dante also has a big part in this, as he’s another one of my idols and someone who I think is one of the great underrated American filmmakers (and a Jersey boy, too), so they all go together like peanut butter and jelly, and as far as I’m concerned they’re with me for life. You can’t always choose the things you love, because sometimes they just find you. I think this is one of those times.

I was lucky enough to meet Dick Miller once. It was in January 1995 at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors in NYC; Dick was there to promote DEMON KNIGHT the TALES FROM THE CRYPT movie that he had a sizeable co-starring role in. He doesn’t make a lot of personal appearances, so this was a pretty big deal for me and I got a big kick out of watching the man do his Q&A, even asking him some questions (I can’t remember what they were, though) and it was very fucking cool as far as I was concerned. DEMON KNIGHT was screening later that evening and when I was leaving the hotel with my friend Michael Gingold (Fango’s managing editor), we bumped into Dick and his lovely wide, Lainie, as they were getting ready to attend the show. We suggested that we share a cab, as they didn’t know where the theater was and also because it was ass-freezing cold outside. I can’t begin to tell you how psyched I was on the cab ride up, to be sharing a cab with one of my idols (yes, one of my idols!) but I have to say I never lost it. When we got to the theater (I can’t recall its name then, but it’s the Imaginasian now) there was already a small line to get in, but Mike got the theater to let Dick and Lainie wait inside while I had to freeze it out in the bitter January cold (and trust me, it was really, really cold). Apparently, while they waited inside Mike informed Dick of how excited I was about meeting him and Dick then suggested that Mike and I join them for breakfast the following morning with journalist Tom Weaver (also a friend of Mike’s)! Breakfast with Dick Miller was too good to be true (this shows how big a fan I am – and how big a geek) and to top it off, DEMON KNIGHT was a pretty good little movie and Dick was great in it, so I couldn’t be happier about the entire thing. The breakfast was wonderful indeed; we got stories about the early days of working with Corman, Dick’s pre-stardom friendship with Jack Nicholson, tales of working on DEMON KNIGHT, but even better was just getting to know the man a little and discovering that not only was he a great actor, he was also a terrific person, too. I attended his second Q&A the following afternoon and afterwards did something I rarely, if ever, do with actors or celebrities – I got my picture taken with him. I still have the picture to this day, although I don’t have a scanner or else I would have run it here, and it’s a prized picture not so much for the photo itself (if I could do it over again I would not have worn the sweater I was wearing) but for what happened when it was taken: Dick put his arm around me and said, “This one is special”. The guy knew who I was. He knew I was a real fan and he knew I was serious in my appreciation of him and his work. It remains the best experience I’ve ever had with a celebrity or a person I admire because it was special. Dick Miller is special. I can’t explain why, but he just is.

Dick Miller will be 79 next Tuesday, Christmas Day (a more fitting day for my favorite actor to be born I can’t even fathom), and even though this Blog-A-Thon has not received many fellow contributors (the only other commitment I received was from Ed Hardy of Shoot The Projectionist), I couldn’t be happier to write about Dick Miller. I wish him a Happy Birthday and many, many more years on this planet and hopefully many, many more movies for him to appear in. He’s the best.

Monday, December 17, 2007

"I Drink Your Milkshake!" - More on THERE WILL BE BLOOD

Paul Thomas Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD finally opens next week, three months after I saw it at Fantastic Fest and I simply cannot wait to see it again. When I saw it in September, there was certainly a bit of excitement regarding its screening (as one of the fest’s “Secret Screenings”, the audience didn’t know it was showing, but I had been tipped off early), as it was the world premiere with Anderson in attendance, but that kind of stuff settles down eventually and the entire audience (myself included, obviously) was astounded by what we saw; even the most jaded of Austin moviegoers (and there are be quite a few of them) were deeply impressed. It went beyond just a big festival buzz, because many of us felt we had seen a new American classic, a film that would be discussed for years on end. Sometimes audiences don’t quite catch up to the classics at first (BLADE RUNNER; THE BIG LEBOWSKI) and yet sometimes they do (THE GODFATHER; 2001; JAWS), and I’m hoping that when it opens next week that THERE WILL BE BLOOD will catch on, at the very least to that devoted, passionate moviegoer segment of the American public that will actually support the likes of a SIDEWAYS or L.A. CONFIDENTIAL while they’re still in theaters. We’ve got another new classic, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, a film almost as good as BLOOD, doing solid business in theaters right now, so I would hope that anyone who’s seen that one (and praised it to their friends) will also check out BLOOD theatrically. Video is great and all, but there are just some movies that are meant for theaters, and THERE WILL BE BLOOD is absolutely one of them.

One of my first reactions when I saw BLOOD is September (and a common reaction amongst the rest of the crowd) was that the Oscar race was over; just hand the damn awards to Anderson and Lewis and send everyone else home, because what film could be better? NO COUNTRY has come close, but now that BLOOD has been screening for a bit, the reaction from other camps has been (in a few cases) less enthusiastic than the one that greeted it in back in Austin. The main criticisms are twofold:

1) People find Lewis’ character utterly despicable and feel that the film contains no sympathetic characters, along with an overall lack of faith in humanity.

2) The last scene is, to some, over the top.

So OK, let’s address these issues. On issue 1, those who say this aren’t wrong - Lewis does indeed play someone with absolutely no positive attributes. Spending 160 minutes with such a character can suck a lot out of you, and when you consider that the other characters are pretty much cut from the same cloth then, yeah, it isn’t exactly a happy fun time at the movies. Certainly plenty of movies have been filled with assholes and scumbags, but with BLOOD there is no denying that it can be quite oppressive if the film isn’t gelling with you; I actually remember a bad review for GOODFELLAS that made that specific point, although it was from People Magazine, so that should tell you something there. It can take more than just great filmmaking for some folks to care for a movie, and if it’s not happening for you then it’s not happening for you at all. But what I would also like to point out that plenty of classic movies are about unsympathetic characters: RAGING BULL, TAXI DRIVER, and THE GODFATHER are just a few. Isn’t a character study of an awful person as valid as one about a great one? Sure, you may find such a thing to be oppressive, but are you going to deny a filmmaker the opportunity to make such a story? Sometimes the most downbeat stories can lead to the most exciting storytelling and I think that THERE WILL BE BLOOD constitutes some of the most exhilarating filmmaking of the decade thus far. It’s potentially very downbeat, but you leave the theater excited because you know you’ve just been told a remarkable story in a brilliant fashion and to me that’s always thrilling.

And now, as we turn on the SPOILER ALERT neon sign (oh, how I wish I really had one of those for us bloggers – quick, one of you crafty readers invent one!) it comes time to discuss THERE WILL BE BLOOD’s final scene, a scene that is already generating a lot of discussion and seems to be a make-it-or-break-it scene for many. It’s interesting to note that NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is likewise getting some negative reaction for its final scene, although with that one it’s more a matter of some folks just not “getting it” than anything else (oh, and because they were pissed it didn’t end in a big shootout, the dumb morons), but with BLOOD it’s less a matter of being too cryptic and a matter of being too literal. But this also ties into our previous point; by this point, Lewis’ lead character has become so untrusting and paranoid of all those who surround him that of course he’s going to go batshit insane, and of course he’s going to take this opportunity to take out his grudge against Paul Dano’s Eli Sunday. But what happens in this scene is so god damn hypnotic, beautifully written and acted (by both actors; why Dano isn’t getting more acclaim is startling to me), and emotionally overwhelming in many ways. The film has been leading up to this conclusion and it wouldn’t be worth much as a tragedy if it didn’t have such a finish. But what also fascinating to me about it to see Lewis’ character lose it after seeing him keep so many of his emotions bottled up inside. Not that I “enjoyed” the scene, but it has some perverse pleasures to it, especially the delight that he takes in humiliating Dano’s character so much, that you really, truly can’t take your eyes off it. It’s shocking when it’s all over, but you know that it was also inevitable and the film ends on one of the great closing lines of a movie that I can think of. Just perfect.

I’m sure that the blogosphere will be an interesting place for the next couple of weeks as countless film journalist and enthusiast discuss and debate the merits of THERE WILL BE BLOOD. I’m sure that I won’t be alone in my praise, but I will be more interested in reading what the naysayer’s have to say and if their points are valid in my mind. I’m also hoping that the film gains some momentum in the awards game, not only because it’s deserving but also so that it will get more and more people to see it. Whether or not it gets a Best Picture nomination (I feel like chances are good, but let’s wait and see) or not, I still feel in my heart of hearts that it’s the classic of 2007, a very good year for movies overall (thank goodness). Time is really what decides these things; THE DEPARTED may have won the Oscar last year, but CHILDREN OF MEN is the one that people still talk about and if BLOOD isn’t nominated or doesn’t win, that’s the way it will go. But I hope it goes in another direction, I really do.

I’m finished.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Two From Butt-Numb-A-Thon: CHARLIE WILSON'S WAR and SWEENEY TODD

There’s something more than a little screwy, and yet oddly comforting, about the holiday movie rush. In the last few weeks of December, countless numbers of flicks are cramming themselves into theaters, most of them out for awards or critical glory while a few are just out to take advantage of everyone being off work and out of school for a week and a half. There’s something almost suicidal about it from a business standpoint, but the movie lover in me adores the fact that literally dozens of quality, near-quality, and non-quality movies are all vying for my attention. Multiple releases in a single week are starting to become less and less of a rarity (especially if you live in NYC or L.A. ), but it's part of the Christmas tradition for me and it’s one of many reason why I adore the holidays so. Hell, it’s better than eggnog and fruitcake and almost better than White Fudge Oreos. Almost.

Two of this year’s holiday logjammers are CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR and SWEENEY TODD, both films made by top talents working off of excellent material and, thankfully, both of them very good movies. I guess I was more pleasantly surprised by the quality of CHARLIE WILSON because the film’s creative team, director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, have both had their ups and downs (If you ask me, A FEW GOOD MEN is still one of the worst films to ever be nominated for Best Picture), though this one is a definite up. I suspect that out of all of the recent Hollywood features about the Middle East this one will probably be the only hit, in part because it really is more of an entertainment (and a pretty smart one, too) but also because even though it’s set in the 80s, it does acknowledge how the events in the film do eventually play out and come back to haunt us. This subject matter is perfect for both Nichols and Sorkin and while CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR isn’t exactly a classic, it’s still these guys in their element and they’re doing a very good job. Everyone else involved is likewise on their game, with the exception of Julia Roberts, who simply isn’t quite that convincing as the Texas millionaire who helps drive Hanks’ Charlie Wilson into caring about the cause of the Afghans. But Hanks does the lovable scam thing extremely well (and kudos the Nichols and Sorkin for not whitewashing Wilson’s character too much) and Philip Seymour Hoffman is just terrific as his CIA contact; Hoffman gets all the best lines and plays his “smartest guy in the room” character on full-tilt mode so that if it wasn’t for him the movie might not work as well. But for as good as the film is, why isn’t it better? Why isn’t it a classic? It does feel a bit like the punches were pulled, that the opportunity to make something truly biting and a bit more savage was tempered by either commercial demands or legal ramifications, though that’s all speculation on my part. I suppose that expectations are one thing and reality is another, and the resulting film is still an extremely entertaining one, so the point is probably moot. I probably should just shut the fuck up and let everyone else enjoy the movie.

Anyway, there’s no mild disappointment connected with SWEENEY TODD, which is quite the winner in the same way that… I have no idea what I mean by that. Anyway, it’s really good. Once again, you’ve got an excellent match for material, Tim Burton and Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical, two great taste that taste great together, a Reese’s peanut butter cup of a movie (have I used that line before?) It’s said that SWEENEY TODD has long been a passion project for Burton (he was once slated to direct it back in the early 90s) and it feels like it; more so, it brings a bit more of a personal feel to Burton’s work, which has seemingly been missing for a while (with the exception of BIG FISH, which I rather liked). A little odd that it’s taken a musical about a murderous barber to bring the heart back to Burton ’s work, but then again that’s Burton for you, isn’t it?

In thinking over this piece I realized it was probably going to come across as an exercise in ass-kissing and quote-whoring (“A masterpiece! Johnny Depp is brilliant! Helena Bonham Carter has never been better!”), so let me focus on a few things that others might not. First, I think Alan Rickman is terrific here; he’s done the villainous bit many times before (and there are few who do it better), but this time out there’s a lovelorn aspect to all this and that he accomplishes beautifully. When he and Depp sing “Pretty Women” together late in the film, you’re not just seeing a bad guy but a bad guy in love and Rickman (who sings rather well) is really god damn good. Second, I admire and respect how Burton doesn’t hold back here. There have been numerous complaints already about the amount of blood in the film, but I wasn’t phased by it, and not because I’ve seen plenty of horror films. Sure, there’s a lot of blood, but I think it’s just enough and not overdone in the least. Besides, this is a movie about a murderous barber, so there should be blood here, shouldn’t there? But beyond this, Burton wholeheartedly embraces the story’s dark side (and I don’t mind saying that it gets pretty dark) and tragedy in a way that most would probably shy away from, and it's completely admirable of him to do so. That’s one more reason why SWEENEY TODD is one of Burton ’s best films and damn well worth seeing.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Kim Morgan on Ike Turner

"There's a mystery and rawness to Ike that hung on him like the dust of a criminal out on parole. People ponder all sorts of scenarios when watching Ike. They even hated him. Take the talented Salon columnist Cintra Wilson's review of an Ike Turner show from 1999 in which she goes one step further by erroneously calling Ike a 'purported musician.' 'Purported musician?' Calling Ike Turner a purported musician is like calling Henry Ford a purported car maker. Ike Turner was a pioneer, a legend and there's no questioning of his chops, right to the very end, no matter how many vicious beatings occurred in his lifetime."

There were a lot of things you could say about Ike Turner - not all of them positive, some of them downright repellent - but you couldn't deny that he was a great musician. For co-writing "Rocket '88" (the song that helped give birth to rock 'n' roll) alone he deserves to be honored. Sunset Gun's Kim Morgan has written an excellent and passionate tribute to someone who, however flawed, moved us greatly. I'm sure some will take issue with it, but there were many accomplishments of Ike Turner's that were well worth remembering, and as usual, Kim has done a tremendous job bringing them to light.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Boy, Is My Butt Numb! (2007 Edition)

If you’ve been paying any attention to HQ10 (and you better) you know damn well how much I love Austin , TX , the Alamo Drafthouse and all the good folk who work there. All of that is a given. But what I don’t like – what I, in fact, despise – is waiting at the airport in order to get there. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I have no problem with traveling but the waiting, to quote Florida’s musical poet laureate, Tom Petty, is the hardest part. I’m usually a pretty patient person, but just sitting there waiting to get on a plane can get my gander up, so when my flight to Austin was delayed two hours (and especially since we were the only flight that was delayed) I was not a happy person. What really pissed me off wasn’t just the wait so much as the delay meant I would be missing the Terror Thursdays midnight showing of THE VISITOR, a film I had been long told was worth flying in for and the film that would have been my first at the new Alamo Drafthouse Sixth St. location, The Ritz. But alas, it was not meant to be. The delay had its advantages – I spoke to a dear friend in L.A. for about an hour and when I arrived in Austin I got a rental car upgrade to an SUV since that was all that was in stock – but I missed THE VISITOR because of this and I feel like Continental owes me.

Rant finished, the visit of my purpose was to attend my third Harry Knowles Butt-Numb-A-Thon, his annual birthday party/benefit for the Austin Saturday Kid’s Movie Club, a monthly film series for children (duh!). It’s 24 straight hours of movies both new and old, a mix of premieres and classics and having done it twice now it’s also an event I look forward to as part of my year-end holiday fun. Yes, sitting in a movie theater for 24 hours with a bunch of fellow movie freaks is not exactly the most social thing to do, but once a year it’s OK and Alamo Drafthouse head honcho Tim League always put on a good show. In years past Tim has made sure that the fun isn’t limited to BNAT and this year’s Friday activities were once again stellar. I spent the early part of Friday catching up with Adam Hulin, a west Texas drive-in theater owner and friend who I was told would not be attending this year; turns out he wasn’t there for BNAT, but he did supply the print of THE VISITOR. We took in a solid BBQ lunch at the Iron Works and shot the shit for a good long while, while also driving around in Adam brand new vintage 1966 Olds Toronado. I’m not a gearhead (unlike some people I know), but I do love the look and feel of a great classic car and will drive around in one any chance I get, so you know Adam was doing the driving that day. For the record, here’s Adam and his baby:


Friday night was a mixer at the Texas Chili Parlor, where the opening Kurt Russell scenes from DEATH PROOF were filmed, and my friends Justin, Zack, and I found ourselves sitting in the same corner that the film’s cast members sat (next to the famous juke box, which was brought in just for the movie). For the record, the chili was fine although I only sampled so much and would have to go back for more to come up with a real opinion. Having ditched the mixer at around 9pm, the plan then called for karaoke, first at the Austin Elks lodge (where Tim just became a member) and then a far more intense session at the Circle Country Club ("A nice place for nice people"), a much more authentic Texas bar about 30 minutes outside of town. This being a real Texas bar, the impression was that we were all going to leave with our heads bashed in, but that was not the case, as our more obscure song choices (“Fuck and Run”) were greeted with mere shrugs more than anything else. Tim took the opportunity to butcher (and I do mean butcher) “Coal Miner’s Daughter” while Gary Huggins had the pick of the night with “Fuck and Run” and Thomas Humphries dedicated “Born to Run” to me, the dear sweet lad. As for myself, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to sing Lou Rawles’ “You’ll Never Find” and I killed with it, if I do say so myself. Ask anyone who was there. (And for more on this event, read about it here.)

So anyway, yeah, BNAT on Saturday. You never know the titles going in and you never want to (adds to the fun), but I got a big-ass spoiler when I went to pick up Adam at the League residence on Friday afternoon: 210 HD-DVD players sitting in their living room. Microsoft and Toshiba sure as hell do want to win this format war (which they’re losing, based strictly on sales figures), but they sure as hell have won my heart, I can tell you that much. When Harry made the announcement at the start of the show the place went nuts, but it also meant having to sit through a ponderous demonstration from a local tech writer (clips from 300 were used, ironic since that was the film that close out BANT last year). It wasn’t over fast enough, but the good vibes quickly bounced back when Harry announced the first feature was Preston Sturges’ THE GREAT MCGINTY. You can never go wrong with Sturges, and MCGINTY is great stuff, a lot of fun and a perfect start to the day. Custom dictates that a new film must follow and older one, and I must admit that I was a little surprised to hear Harry announce CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR as the next film. I suppose I shouldn’t, since the film (based on a true story) is about a Texas Congressman who helps changes the course of the Russian/Afghan war. I’ll be getting into it in more detail before its release, but I’m happy to say it’s a fine adult entertainment and Philip Seymour Hoffman is a blast. Taking the fest into another (but equally anti-Commie) direction, Sam Fuller’s PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET was next and what can I say about this near-perfect movie except that if you’ve never seen it then you’re missing out.

So by this point in we’re already 3 for 3 and you know that things will trip eventually, and sure enough the follow-up feature, MONGOL, was a bit of a bust. This Russian-made epic about the life of Genghis Kahn is more in the BRAVEHEART mold and while a great film about Kahn is just waiting to be made, this isn’t it. MONGOL is too slow for its own good, but I’m a huge fan of lead Tobanobu Asano (star of many a cool Japanese flick), who’s excellent here, but it wasn’t enough. Thing is, this is the first film in a trilogy about Kahn, so I’ve got my doubts if I’ll ever be seeing the follow-ups. Speaking of follow-ups (bad segue), THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES was next in a very nice new print (courtesy of MGM) and I must say that this one still holds up well. I’m a big fan of the director, Robert Fuest (who also made the sequel, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN and the excellent AND SOON THE DARKNESS) and his sparse style and dry wit made for a fine match for the material and I’m happy to say that the film was still appreciated by the BNAT crowd. Good choice there, Harry.

Of course, you can only follow up a Vincent Price movie with a Tim Burton one, so SWEENEY TODD was next and I’m pleased to say that it didn’t disappoint. What struck me was how well matched Burton was with Sondheim’s score (full of melancholy, hatred and dread) and while I’m sure that others would have done a fine job, Burton truly makes this one his. Depp is brilliant and I think he’s finally got his Oscar here; we shall see. And to prove once again that there’s no theater better than the Drafthouse, free meat pies were served during the film, and tasty meat pies, at that. David Miller’s LONELY ARE THE BRAVE may have seemed an odd next feature, but there’s nothing wrong with following up a good movie with another good movie, and this contemporary western starring Kirk Douglas is one hell of a good movie. No, fuck that, it’s a great movie and seeing it on the Alamo screen in beautiful widescreen scope was better than anything I could ever see on HD-DVD. You could only go downhill from there, and THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES, a very lackluster serial killer mockumentary with one or two decent ideas and bad acting throughout was the very definition of going downhill in this sense. A bit of a controversy has risen up about the screening (as it was introduced as just a straight doco), but the controversy should be more about why they let such a lame-ass movie screen in the first place.

Tiredness was bound to kick in at some point and just a few minutes into TEEN LUST, a teen sex comedy from ’77 (though not released until ’81) directed by veteran character actor James Hong, I was out of it. Kind of a shame, too, since I have an odd soft spot for teen sex movies of the 70s and 80s (I’ll figure out why one of these days). From what I saw it looked like I really didn’t miss much, but I’d still like to make sure for myself someday. Next was the Star Trek episode “The City of the Edge of Forever”, run in part as a “preview” of the upcoming J.J. Abrhams TREK feature (as the time portal from “City” figures in the plot) and also because the HD-DVD folks asked them to run something else in HD-DVD. While it certainly looked pretty incredible on the big screen, it also showed off the Trek episode as the cheap little TV show that it was and furthermore, even though Trek fans call this episode the series’ best, I wasn’t especially impressed and decided to take a 45-minute bathroom break.

Next was a most daring choice, Jacopetti and Prosperi’s FAREWELL UNCLE TOM, one of the most controversial, wrongheaded and strangely watchable sleazy epics you will ever see. Introduced by Drafthouse pal Rodney Perkins, who also happened to be the only African-American in attendance (at least that I know of), what can you say about FAREWELL, UNCLE TOM, except that it’s an indefensible piece of racist trash, but it’s also hypnotic and well made and it’s a film that, as upsetting as it can be, is also ridiculous as all can be. Jacopetti and Prosperi started out with the best intentions, trying to make a movie that comments on racism, but by the film’s end (and what an ending it is), it becomes pretty racist in itself. A one-of-a-kind experience, though that’s for sure.

The final film of BNAT is usually a big upcoming release (like 300, V FOR VENDETTA, and THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST), but since RAMBO and CLOVERFIELD both dropped out at the last minute (both claiming FX work needed to be done), so TRICK ‘R TREAT, which was supposed to play Fantastic Fest back in September (it was originally due out in October) was substituted and at the very least I can say it was a fairly entertaining little horror flick that I don’t regret seeing. Written and directed by Michael Dougherty (who stayed for all 24 hours) and produced by Bryan Singer, it’s a Halloween night anthology flick, and the Halloween setting and ambiance is its major strong point; as a big fan of the holiday, I felt they captured that Halloween feeling quite well and I gave it points for that. I also liked how it was a horror film that was only trying to entertain with horror and humor and a little drama and overall it’s a fun little picture, although I wouldn’t have chosen it to close Butt-Numb-A-Thon. And after that we all got our HD-DVD players and went back to our respective houses to sleep, meeting up with pretty much the entire gang for a late dinner at Canoli Joe’s and then a round of Anthony Timpson’s Leonard Maltin game known simply as “Maltin’s”, which I won, as usual.

And I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Another great time in Austin. Seriously, you guys should visit.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

James Marsden - WTF?

OK, who the fuck knew James Marsden had talent?

Sure as hell wasn’t me. I’d seen him in various things throughout the years (the X-MEN films, SUPERMAN RETURNS) and thought him to be nothing more than a Hollywood pretty boy, an unthreateningly handsome guy who looked like the popular high school quarterback no one could hate. There didn’t seem to be much to him under the surface and it seemed like he was going to end up like a parade of other, similar-type actors who eventually find themselves on a one-way bus to ABC Family TV movies. All of them nice guys, I’m sure, but no one’s first choice for a role that required anything other than just being nice. Making such assumptions can be a double-edged sword, though; while it leaves open the element of surprise when a performer is finally able to break out and does something well, such prejudices may keep you away from their work, never giving you the opportunity to see that they can do more. All I can say is that I’m not underestimating this guy again.

It all started with HAIRSPRAY, an extremely fun movie that keeps a pleasant place in my memories, so much so that I’m tempted to call the musical remake better than John Waters’ original. I’d seen the stage show and liked it very much, but when I saw Marsden cast as Corny Collins, host of the film’s TV dance show, I mistakenly thought his was one of the non-singing roles in the film. Then about 15 minutes into it he takes center stage and belts out “The Nicest Kids in Town” and I was really thrown for a loop. Not only could the guy sing, he sang well and delivered the song’s semi-sarcastic and satirical tone just right. Was this really James Marsden? Where was the dullard from DISTURBING BEHAVIOR? The rest of Marsden’s work as Corny Collins was equally spot-on throughout the rest of the film, adding to my overall enjoyment of an already enjoyable feature. It’s always nice to be surprised and HAIRSPRAY was a very pleasant one, indeed. But could Marsden do it again?

Uh, have you seen ENCHANTED yet?

For a film starring the queen of loveliness, Ms. Amy Adams, Marsden almost damn near steals it with his lovably goofy and dopey Price Edward character, fruitlessly searching for his princess in a supposedly real New York City . In just about every scene he’s in Marsden is able to do something worth watching, but not so much that he’s overdoing it or taking away from his co-stars. It’s also a role that allows Marsden to be silly and stupid and, obviously relishing the opportunity, he just runs with it. He’s a lot of fun, perking up an otherwise just amusing movie and sticking another sizable feather in Marsden’s cap.

OK, so I was wrong about James Marsden. He’s a pretty boy, yes, but he’s not a bland, blank-stared one. There’s an edge to him now; the ability for him to poke fun at that pretty boy aspect of himself is giving him a lot more opportunities. He’s not afraid be goofy or look stupid and this, in turn, gives him a lot more freedom as a performer than he’s ever had before. As in HAIRSPRAY, he can be a sarcastic smart-ass (like he also plays in the upcoming 27 WEDDINGS, or at least judging by the trailer he does), going against the grain of what is expected of a performer like him. I think that Marsden still has a bit more to prove, but he has finally begun to carve out something of a real career for himself and it’s possible this could grow into something significant. Marsden’s leading man looks may have been what’s holding him back, because it’s quite likely that he’s really more of a Ralph Bellamy character actor or a comedian instead. Hard to say for sure, and the next few films of Marsden’s career will tell us if he really has this ability, but I certainly welcome seeing him again. I’m not sure exactly how far Marsden’s talent can take him, but he’s finally on the right track and that can only be a positive.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Nothing (and Everything) To Atone For - ATONEMENT

I have, for time to time, cast a certain prejudice against those prestigious British costume dramas that have become fairly ubiquitous with arthouse cinema over the last 20 years or so. Anything from E.M. Forester or Jane Austin suggests to me a certain type of picture that I know will be well made, well acted, be full of intelligence and great drama and will in no way whatsoever have any meaning to me. These pictures can be fine works of cinematic art, but my identification with most of them is a big, fat zero. While I recognize that tales British class struggles are often meant to represent the greater society at large, I almost never get that feeling while I’m watching them. For the most part, there’s an almost cookie-cutter assembly that these types of films follow: The upper class family comes up against lower class types, usually in the shape of a romance between two young lovers, and at some point there’s a murder or the law gets involved or something and Maggie Smith almost always shows up. Like the most standard of martial arts films, these pictures tend to write themselves; clichés are clichés, no matter what the genre.

What I liked about Joe Wright’s ATONEMENT is that at the beginning it’s a lot like this, too, but things then take a turn and it becomes totally unlike a lot of those films. The trailer gives most of it away (which I won’t), but ATONEMENT is basically a very well-done love story that is a heck of a lot more on top of that. I knew once the c-word became an essential part of the plot that things weren't going to be typical, and as ATONEMENT kept going it kept doing its own thing and I was doubly pleased and relieved that it wasn't going to be the typical Brit prestige pic. I suppose it's a bit like THE ENGLISH PATIENT, in that you've got a tragic romance under a WWII backdrop, but that only came to mind long after viewing the film, never once while I was watching it. And I think it's a better film overall (and I quite liked THE ENGLISH PATIENT).

So even though the thing opens on Friday (at least in major cities), I'm not looking to give too much ATONEMENT away because I feel it works better the less you know about it. Speaking in very general terms, it's a film I like very much; the acting is excellent across the board, with a great lead performance by James McAvoy, and so is Wright's direction. This is going to push him onto the director's A-List and deservedly so, as it's filled with some beautifully unforgettable imagery, especially a seduction scene between McAvoy and Kiera Knightly and a masterful tracking shot that (according to Wright, who spoke after the screening I attended) was created more out of budget necessity than design (the mark of a skilled director, I say). And even though this is based on a novel by Ian McEwan, I felt that the subject matter of ATONEMENT was one well worth delving into on film. Atoning for your past mistakes is something that comes to us all and McEwan's story is a powerful enough one to move the toughest of moviegoers. Said story is expertly adapted by Christopher Hampton, and that brings me to the other part of ATONEMENT that I was impressed with - its professionalism. This is a film made with few wrong turns; no one does sub par work and they're all more or less at the top of their game. Beyond just being intelligent, ATONEMENT's filmmakers were smart about how to tell this particular story and when you're watching it there's almost never a feeling that something could have been done better. I'm not sure I'd call it all great filmmaking, but it's 100% solid and that can be better than great at times. Slick professionalism can feel like greatness sometimes just by being so impressive and ATONEMENT feels like that to me. It's an impressive feat all around and if the big awards shows decide to honor it (and I get this feeling they will) then it won't be undeserved.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Canadians I Know Make Stuff

My pals Robert and Hamm of the Vancouver musical comedy duo Canned Hamm have just released Sincerely Christmas, their fourth long-playing record and their first holiday effort. Special guests include Neil Hamburger and Hamster Hamm and song titles include "Mistletoe Forever", "Sexy Elf" and "First I Make Love To You (Then I Make Love To Christmas)". What's not to like? I haven't heard the album in full (my copy is on its way), but I'm anticipating much holiday mirth from these festive songbirds.

Meanwhile, out in lovely Regina, Saskatchewan, Karim Hussien is shooting the new genre thriller WALLED IN, starring Mischa Barton and the excellent Deborah Kara Unger. Karim has been making low-budget indie movies on his own in his hometown of Montreal for a while , but for the higher-budgeted WALLED IN, he serves as the cinematographer for director Gilles Paquet-Brenner, making his English-language debut. Karim informs me that the shoot is going well and that this is the film that proves Ms. Mischa Barton as a quality actress, and I can tell you that Karim is no pushover, so I trust his word. Read an incredibly incise, thought-provoking interview (written by some two-bit hack) with Karim about WALLED IN at the Fangoria website here.

And last, but most certainly not least, is my dear friend the lovely Kier-La Janisse, who recently returned to her native Canada to work for the Winnipeg Cinematheque and also to hawk her book A Violent Professional: The Films of Luciano Rossi, published Harvey Fenton's fantastic FAB Press. Kier-La was recently interviewed by What's On Winnipeg about her book release party, but the link to the story is gone already (apparently you need to subscribe to read it), so I won't be supplying any links. But I happen to own a copy of A Violent Professional and can tell you without hesitation that's it's an awesome book that's well worth buying several copies of for friends and family as holiday gifts.

Thank you and support the Canadian arts!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

How Did I Ever Get By Without Reading or Seeing LOLITA?

My relationship with books is probably similar to most Americans. I read, sure, but I'm not reading all the time, like say, when I'm home and don't feel like watching TV or something. Mostly I read when I'm in transit, which is about for 30 minutes every day and then again on planes or trains or whatnot. I enjoy reading, no question; a good book can be more satisfying than a great movie sometimes and considering that reading a book is such a personal experience, when you really love a book it's a bit like having a personal relationship with it, and that's something special. But a veracious reader I am not. I always need to be in a certain mindset to read and it's not always something that I'm willing to jump into, especially if I'm outside on a sunny day or something. Unless a book is simply too good to put down (and I've devoured a few of those) I'm going to read it in my little allotted reading time. Sounds lame, I know, but I suppose I'm a creature of habit.

In terms of the books I do read, I'm particular to character studies, pulp, comical novels, westerns, and the occasional potboiler (like The Oscar), but when it comes to "the classics", I'm afraid I'm more than a bit behind. A lot of those books I was supposed to have read in high school were enjoyed via Cliff Notes and I usually navigate away from Jane Austin while I'm in the book store. But earlier this year, while searching for something to accompany me during my commute, a book hit me: Lolita. I should read Lolita. It's supposed to be a masterpiece. People still read it, rave about it, and it's still fresh after 50 years in print. And it's relatively short; that's not always part of my criteria, but it can be a deciding factor at times, you know? So I picked up Mr. Nabokov's little nymphet opus and, no surprise, I loved it. You'd have to be a dope or a prude not to, and since I am neither (at least, no one has yet told me I am), I was truly taken by it. Now, I'm not going to review Lolita for you because that would be a fool's errand; it just happens to be one of the most famous novels ever written, so I think there's little point. But what I do feel like pointing out was that I got it all pretty well; not the whole nymphet-loving thing, but the idea of an overwhelming sexual or romantic obsession taking you over and eventually destroying your life. That need, that desire, I've been there. You're not really human if you haven't, I think, and while I can't quite relate to Humbert Humbert's love for 12 year-old girls, I understand how obsessed he became. Just as Ahab had his Moby Dick and Humbert had his Dolores, I've had one of those, too; I'm not giving out the name by any means, but I'm just saying that I can relate. This is pretty much the essence of the book's greatness, taking an otherwise unspeakable act and putting it in a fashion that makes the reader at least understand (but not sympathize with) Humbert on a basic human level. It's also beautifully written and a heartbreaking story, but if you ask me why I liked it so much, that's the reason why. So there you go.

Just as I'd never read Lolita, the book, I'd never seen Kubrick's LOLITA, either. Calling one's self a film lover and having never seen LOLITA (or at least every single Kubrick film) is considered an Internet crime by many, but I had my reasons. Since Kubrick's passing, I've been holding on to LOLITA, as a way of keeping Kubrick alive and giving me at least one more "new" Kubrick film to see, other than FEAR AND DESIRE, which pretty much no one has seen. Having now read the book I was able to watch the film as not just my last new Kubrick film, but also as an adaptation of the novel, giving me two different levels to appreciate it under. Much has been written about the differences between the book and the film, and the numerous changes there are don't necessarily lessen the film (especially when you consider that Kubrick was a master of adapting novels to screen) and are mostly understandable considering the subject matter and era it was shot in. The most obvious of these changes being the increased presence of Claire Quilty (Sellers is brilliant, of course) and of moving the book's final scene to the opening of the film, which at first I thought was a mistake; too much information too early on could be a problem and instead of the novel's rather lyrical, heartbreaking and humorous opening (a true marvel to read) of Humbert's obsession with nymphets and his first marriage we get something alternately jokey and tragic. But it sets the mood for the rest of the film; Kubrick treats much of the material as comedy (the book is certainly not without its humor) and it works completely on its own terms. This is Kubrick's LOLITA, not just Nabokov's, and I felt like I wasn't just watching LOLITA but also the birth of DR. STRANGELOVE, with the wheels in Kubrick's head asking himself, "Just how far can I go with this?" It remains a risky film, a pretty deft juggling act of subject matter, adaptation and director, and is completely admirable. But it's not the book.

The phrase "The book was better" is usually a pretty easy pass-off when you say you don't like a film or if you want to sound like a smarty-pants, but in this case I think it holds true. They're both excellent, but if you're going to give one the edge, the book wins easily. I see the book as a tragic romance while the film is more of a comedy of manners (with a touch of tragic romance) and I was easily more moved by Lolita, the book, than LOLITA, the film. Certainly, almost all books have more to them than the films made from them, but when you take the two approaches to the same material, I simply preferred Nabokov to Kubrick. Both approaches are artistically legit and it's impressive what Kubrick has done considering how much he was forced to rework the material. But I was more moved by Nabokov's take on desperate love and obsession, while Kubrick's merely amused me, though it amused me greatly. It's interesting to note how he revisited the theme somewhat in EYES WIDE SHUT many years later and the tone had become more solemn; it was a different piece of material in the first place, but Kubrick decided to look at this theme in another manner and the results, I thought, were brilliant. I also want to point out while I find Kubrick's LOLITA to be comical, it's not immature; he obviously understood the tragedy of it but chose not to make it the focus. It would have been interesting if the later Kubrick of EYES WIDE SHUT had tackled Lolita, but I suppose we'll never really know. Either way, you've got two excellent variations on the same story, and a great story it is. If you're late to the party like I was, you should certainly sample both.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Forgotten Movies (Thanksgiving Edition) - SAYONARA JUPITER

It's a pretty standard thing for websites, magazines and newspapers to put together listings of awful movies around this time of year. Turkey day brings about turkey movies - get it? The problem with these list is how often the lean towards recent fare (BATTLEFIELD EARTH) or infamous disasters (HOWARD THE DUCK) and they don't really seem to know just what a bad movie is. I mean, yeah, those films I mentioned are bad, but they're not offensively bad, just stupid and the fact that they have big names attached to them makes them easy fodder. Most bad movies are terrible due to laziness and incompetence, but those types of movies, the Cuba Gooding, Jr. comedies and the like, don't really make for interesting reading ("BOAT TRIP is a real turkey, but it's also not fun in any way whatsoever"), so they pick on the easy targets. I also feel that most of these pieces are written by people who wouldn't know what a true good, great or bad movie is if it came up and bit them on the ass; I recall reading one that listed Sergio Corbucci's COMPANEROS!, one of the best Euro westerns of all time, as one such film, proving that they knew nothing. Everyone has their taste and some are better than others (mine are the best), but it takes something truly special to be so incredibly awfully sucky to say, "This film is, without question, one of the worst films ever made".

Such a film is SAYONARA JUPITER.

This is a film I had never heard of until it was released on DVD earlier this year from Discotek Media and I didn't get to see it until just a few weeks ago, but holy christ almighty, what a cinematic shitburger! There have been some incredibly awful sci-fi/fantasy movies made over the years, but there's something about SAYONARA JUPITER that makes all those other films a little less awful. It's pretentious, but it's also stupidly pretentious; it's ambitious, but it's also incompetently ambitious; it seeks to provide fun and entertainment, but it provides the wrong kind of fun and entertainment; it's long and dull and boring, but also fascinating in that car wreck sort of way. Actually, having been a car wreck not long ago, I can tell you that SAYONARA JUPITER is a bit more fun, but only because you don't have to exchange insurance info and wait for a tow truck once it's done.

SAYONARA JUPITER is based on Sakyo Komatsu's novel and was produced by the mighty Toho Studios of Japan in an effort to fashion and home-grown special effects extravaganza along the lines of STAR WARS, but what they got something more along the lines of STAR TREK - THE MOTION PICTURE. It's one of those early special effects films that likes showing off its special effects more than just telling a story (the opening 10 minutes are just one giant FX shot after another) which makes it equal parts dull and stupid, because once you realize there isn't any story there, anyway, you just smack your head and laugh to yourself. The plot is basically about the need to destroy Jupiter (henceforth the title - duh!) in order to save the earth and the battle (such as it were) between scientists and religious radicals who don't want it destroyed. But in truth, the film is really about this:


At this point in the story, the film's hero has met up with his long-lost lover, who is now part of the radical group trying to sabotage the Jupiter project. The two reunite for one night of bliss where they don't just make love, they make space love, the kind that has them floating around space all bare-assed and talking about how much they love each other. This scene comes in around 25 minutes or so into the film and it's the point where you go, "OK, SAYONARA JUPITER, you may not ever be any good, but I will stay with you until I know just what the hell it is you're up to". You never do find out the answer to that question, but what you see throughout the rest of the film is not what you were ever expecting. Such as? Such as this:


Did I mention the song dedicated to the dying dolphin? Maybe I shouldn't.

Anyway, SAYONARA JUPITER is, in its way, a lovely little reminder of some of the lame sci-fi flicks of the late 70s and early 80s, like THE BLACK HOLE and STARCRASH and it may truly be the worst of the bunch. It has a lameness all its own and even at 130 minutes (!) it never wears out its welcome. It is truly the definition of a bad movie, and if that's what you crave this Thanksgiving, lemme tell, this one isn't just the turkey, it's the stuffing, the mashed potatoes, the yams, the corn, and dessert, too. Eat it up, yum!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I Heart Amy Adams

The decision to play ENCHANTED at my beloved Alamo Drafthouse in Austin has been a controversial one to say the least: Owner Tim League booked it because he thinks it's going to be good (and profitable), while programmer Zack Carlson is eagerly anticipating the film. Meanwhile, everyone else is pretty dead set against the decision, as they all think ENCHANTED will not be all that good a movie. Despite some pretty positive notices already, I'm guessing that they have yet to be enchanted by the film's trailer or other marketing, so I would have to assume that tonight's post-closing employee screening will be an interesting one.

As for myself, I'm all for seeing ENCHANTED at some point over the weekend and that's for one reason and one reason alone: Amy Adams. Of course, she's the star of the movie and I'm guessing I'm not alone in having her be my driving force to see this film. Ever since she was nominated for an Oscar for JUNEBUG last year she's been getting a lot of notice, and if the early reviews are any indication, ENCHANTED is going to make her a big movie star. That's great, as I happen to think that she's immensely talented and a more than likable presence on the silver screen. But more importantly, my reasons for seeing ENCHANTED don't really have anything to do with any of that (important reasons though they are). In all honestly, it's really all about just sitting in a movie theater for two hours or so and just simply looking at Amy Adams and sighing quietly to myself over her incredibly beauty and talent.

I have got a big motherfucking crush on Amy Adams.

Please allow me a moment to clarify all this: A crush is not lust. I am not lusting after Amy Adams, I have a crush on her - big difference. I think Amy Adams is the prettiest actress around these days and I'm simply taken in by most everything about her and I'm not ashamed to admit it. After this weekend, there will be plenty of people who will be saying the exact same thing, so I figured I should get this out in the open now and make my point clear. This is not about a desire to make babies with Amy Adams, it's about how lovely she is and about how I think she's the bee's knees, that's all. She's got what it takes to get me notice her in a big way and at the moment I'm simply enjoying the sight of her. Don't think I'm becoming some crazy-ass stalker, folks, because I'm sure this will wear off eventually. Besides, she's got a boyfriend.

Now back to the loveliness that is Amy Adams.

She really is a terrific actress; everyone took notice of her after JUNEBUG, but I remember seeing her in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN and thinking to myself, "Who is that?". She obviously does the innocent wallflower thing extremely well, but she also comes across as someone who may well be innocent, but she isn't stupid, either. There's a bit of a fireball intensity to her in some of her roles thus far (even in a slight role like TALLADEGA NIGHTS) and she's still got a freshness factor to her, too, even though she also happens to have a classic movie star quality about her. I mean seriously, what's not to love? Super easy on the eyes, super talented, super movie star-ness; it's all there. The girl is in her current state of "can do no wrong" and I feel like I have to express this. Will I still feel this way after a couple of bad movies and maybe some public relations mishaps? Probably not. But Amy Adams is about to explode and I'm here to say that I am all for that. A super lovely woman, she is.
And that's all I have to say about that.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

It's Still On! - Writer's Strike 2007/2008 (let's get used to that)

I'm going out to L.A. for a few days and will be seeing for myself a bit of what the writer's strike is like in a big way. There are numerous pickets in NYC, but not like there are in L.A. (besides, pickets in NYC are about as common as rats, or in this case, giant inflatable rats) and while I'm seeing a lot of it on the news and in blogs, seeing it all in person will be another matter altogether. I'll try and take some pics.

At this point it's pretty obvious that this strike will be lasting a while, and what's especially intriguing about this strike, more so than the one from back in '88, is how the writers have used the internet (ironically one the reasons they're on strike) to their advantage. Of course, writers do this all the time (hellooo!) but the WGA and the striking screenwriters have been especially smart about all of it. Over the weekend a screenwriter/director friend of mine put me on a mass e-mail with links to some persuasive YouTube videos (one of which is posted below) about the situation. And as with all things YouTube, you can't watch just one thing, so I was amazed to see the amount of video content the WGA has posted and its quality, too. I know these guys are professionals, but these clips don't just come across as documents of the strike, but also as effective ads for the WGA and I don't mean that as a knock:





What's great about these spots (for lack of a better term) is how they bring the point of the strike across, but not in a way that's preachy or makes you feel any guilt. "All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share", a great writer once wrote (OK, that's a line from A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS, but you know what I mean) and now is the time for the writers to get the same share that actors, producers and directors get. The WGA is running a hearts and minds campaign and doing a splendid job of it, not just in explaining the situation overall but in telling the average Joe why they should care. There's almost no way for the studios to counterbalance this.

Oh yeah, the layoffs. That will do a pretty god damn good job of counterbalancing anything.

It doesn't matter who you are, if you work in the entertainment industry, you're going to be affected by this strike sooner or later, with the possibility of sooner inching its way up day by day. Already staffers at some shows (like FAMILY GUY) have already been let go since there's no work to be done and they can't let them just sit around and do nothing at work all day. The studios are beginning to use "force majure" clauses in contracts and slowly but surely, pink slips will start getting handed out to makeup people, set decorators, you name it, and then the tide will turn. Unions or no unions, when people lose their jobs because of things like this, a bitterness sets in, one that can't be stopped. I'm told there was a lot of leftover resentment from the strike of '88 for many years, and with the economy beginning to take a nosedive, the potential for ugliness is pretty fucking high.

I've heard some real head slappers about residual payments to writers over the years, so I support them 100% and want them to get all that they deserve. The writers have made it very clear that they don't want to strike and want to get back to negotiations and get this thing resolved. And certainly everyone in the industry understands the ramifications of this strike, even if they're not already feeling the pinch. But if continues there is going to be hell to pay on all sides and man, oh man, is it going to get ugly.

Wow, I'm actually relived I work in the record industry at the moment!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Guess Who?

We all have our favorites. You're either a Beatles person or you're a Stones person. You like chunky over smooth, the Yankees over the Mets, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK over STAR WARS. You can like both, but ultimately, you can only prefer one over the other. It's not Sophie's Choice, you know, it's just a matter of personal taste; I like you Veronica, but I love Betty. Hey, we can always be friends.

So when it comes to animated characters, you're either a Bugs Bunny person or a Mickey Mouse person. Bugs is more of a free-thinking individual, while Mickey tries to be all things to all people. They both have their strengths and faults, but they're more or less opposites, Bugs' ying to Mickey's yang.

But what if you're a Woody Woodpecker person?

I don't quite know how it happened, but I fell for Woody Woodpecker when I was around 6 or so and never turned back since. Again, I've got nothing against all the other great animated characters, but Woody Woodpecker has long been my favorite and I'm sticking to it. Many have passed him off as nothing more than a Bugs Bunny rip-off (he arrived a year after Bugs), and I won't deny that there are elements of Bugs in Woody (fearlessly anti-social; willing to take on jerks head-on) but Woody's got his own thing going on, and I like him for that. To start, he's got a theme song; Bugs and Mickey didn't have their own theme song, did they? "The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down" was actually the Looney Tunes theme and there was nothing for the Disney shorts. And Woody had a great look to him, spectacularly colorful and very eccentric; with his bright red head, long beak and sort-of Mohawk, the guy looks like a crazy cartoon woodpecker, you know? As a kid, I always used to prefer his later, post-50s "cuter" look, but I much prefer the classic original look and have for a while now. Another reason to like Woody Woodpecker? Many of the early cartoons are still fucking hilarious.

In watching a lot of these shorts today, I was bit taken aback by just how obnoxious a character Woody is; he'll do what he likes and isn't afraid to be an asshole. You still see that today on stuff like Cartoon Network shows, but when you consider most of the classic animated characters you have to realize how odd this is for the time. However, this also gives Woody a bit of a punk rock element to him, making him something of an early anti-establishment hero, in a way, and even more endearing in my book. Am I reaching when I say this? You're welcome to think so, but that's the impression I'm getting from Woody today and it makes me like him all the more. His actions (much more destructive than Bugs') and his high-pitched voice (which should be grating, but isn't) and attitude are appealing to me; he's also surrounded by equally amusing co-stars (Wally Walrus, Buzz Buzzard) and there's usually some good cartoon banter to them. The early shorts are very well animated and still pretty funny. Seriously, what's the problem here?

So even though Woody aired for decades on TV, about 20 years ago TV airings pretty much just dried out, about the same time as most other classic cartoons were sent packing from syndication; but unlike Bugs and Mickey, Woody never really made a comeback at any point. Fox aired a new Woody series (which I must admit I barely remember) and I picked up a Woody t-shirt at Target about 2 years back, but other than that, nada in the WW department. I understand that he's around in costume over at Universal studios in Burbank and Florida, but I also must admit that I've never been to either, so what good does that do me? Especially worse was the lack of Woody material from the home video market; Universal made some VHS compilations available in the late 80s and early 90s and there was a laserdisc around that time, too, and then absolutely nothing until this past July. With very little fanfare (aside from a screening in L.A. with Leonard Maltin) or press attention (calling Dave Kehr) they put out a nice 3-disc set with a lot of what they had lying around and what appears to be not a lot of clean-up, though I'm going to admit that for all of my experience in the DVD world, production is not my forte and it's possible I just don't know what I'm talking about. But they don't look all great, if you ask me; colors are inconsistent, grain and dirt are everywhere, and they all show their age. The major upside to this set (aside from the fact that it's available at all) is that you get a lot of content - all of the WW cartoons until 1952, several Chilly Willy, Andy Panda and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons, including the famed "Confidence" from 1933. There are also many snippets from Walter Lanz's WW TV shows and an additional Halloween special, but there isn't anything historical or retrospective about them. Where's Maltin or Robert Osborne or someone like that? How about some commentaries by some experts or something? Hey, I'm available, you know.

Still, it's nice to know the set is out there and I hope enough units sell to bring out volume 2. It would also be nice if it helps to bring out a resurgence in the red-headed little bastard. He's made me laugh, he's probably made you laugh at one time or another, so take a moment out to think about Woody and watch one of his old flicks. They're still fun and I'm happy to say I still love the guy, all these years later.


PS - A search for images for this piece led to the rather troubling discovery that Google image search isn't as well-policed as they seem to think it is. Type "Woody Woodpecker" in there, check out the first couple of selections and you'll see what I mean. NSFW!!!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Writer's Strike 2007 - It's On!!!

Is this the future of entertainment? Uh, maybe.



But seriously, my thoughts go out to anyone and everyone affected by the strike; whether you're a writer or a set decorator or craft services, a lot of good people will be out of work, though hopefully not for long. The writers have my support, of course, but a long strike like the one in '88 isn't good for anyone. Let's hope this gets resolved quickly.

Friday, November 2, 2007

The Forgotten Movies - Walter Hill's THE DRIVER

I have kind of a vague recollection of when Walter Hill's THE DRIVER came out in back in '78, mainly from the commercials (I was but a wee lad at the time and there was no way I was going to see it), but what I remember about them was the concept: Ryan O'Neal drives a getaway car for bank robbers. That part I understood, a concept so simple that even kids could get it. Had I seen the picture back then would I have gotten it? Perhaps to a certain extent, but I just would have dug on the car chases and not much on anything below the surface. And even though I knew it had a good reputation, it was never on the top of my "must see" list, despite a rare 4-star review from Halliwell's Film Guide, which doesn't hand these things out regularly. But I picked up the DVD a few years back because it was so damn cheap (something like $10) and I knew somewhere in the back of me head that someday I would get to it, so - hey! - I finally did a few weeks ago.

What's interesting to me about THE DRIVER is that it comes from that early stage of Walter Hill's career when he was not so much finding his voice but finding a way to get his voice to break through. It was only his second film as a director (after HARD TIMES) but thanks to scripts like HICKEY & BOGGS and THE GETAWAY, he was already defining himself as a distinctive writer of pulp; someone who appreciated the thriller genre, specifically crime stories and tales of tough and brutal men, but who was also able to take those kind of stories and update them for the 1970s. Novelist like Jim Thompson, Donald Westlake and Raymond Chandler were obvious influences, as were filmmakers like Robert Aldrich, Don Siegel and Jean-Pierre Melville, but THE DRIVER doesn't exactly come across as a homage, just more like a late 70s version of those types of films. It's possible that it could have been made ten years earlier, but the 1978 time frame suits the film fine and makes it a little bit more interesting, since it was one of the few films of its type made during that era, instead of dating it. Like POINT BLANK a decade before it, it feels like the definitive crime film of its era.

The premise, like I said before, is simple: O'Neal is a getaway car driver (the best there is, of course), hunted by ruthless cop Bruce Dern while also trying to rid himself of the crew who screwed him over on the last job. The film is almost half car chases (which are all extremely well done) and O'Neal doesn't really say much, leaving Dern to do all the talking. It's the kind of picture that can translate into any language, but it's distinctly American in its way (L.A. locations are used beautifully); I recall reading a draft of Hill's proposed remake of THE KILLER (which Hill co-wrote with David Giler) and it was absolutely wretched, just a horrendous piece of shit, but I flashed back to it after watching this film because the sparse use of language that Hill employed so well here sure as hell couldn't translate to that material. It wasn't so much that he was the wrong guy for the job, but that he was the wrong guy for that material. THE DRIVER is Woo's KILLER made well before then (and was possibly an influence) and as Hill's "Melville film" it's a really solid piece of work, though nowhere nearly as stylish as Melville (or Woo's) films. Interestingly enough, it does feel like an early version of a Michael Mann film, so perhaps it became influential in its own right.

What really makes THE DRIVER for me, though, are O'Neal and Dern; here you have two actors basically owning two different parts of the film (they only share a few scant scenes together) and each is first-rate. Dern's threatens to take things over the top with his obsessed cop at more than one point, but he pulls back right when he needs to and because of this it all works. An apt comparison is Pacino's character in Michael Mann's HEAT, although with Dern's character it's less of a matter of drive (no pun intended) than all-out obsession. He's really out to get this guy, no matter what, with any and all means at his disposal, which he most certainly does. Contrasting this is O'Neal's driver, basically a blank slate of a human being who is no doubt smart and shrewd but also doesn't seem to have too much of a need for people in his life. Again, the HEAT comparison has to be brought up, though O'Neal's character isn't quite as intriguing as DeNiro's or as deep; I'm sure there's a good back story to the character, but we don't really get one and it doesn't seem to serve Hill much anyway, as THE DRIVER is a film solely interested in the here and now. But O'Neal, a very underrated actor (he's brilliant in BARRY LYNDON), is quite good. He's often been accused of being nothing more than a pretty face, but there's more there than people seem to think there is, and with THE DRIVER his blank stare actually adds a lot, because it's often tough to understand just what's going through his head, and that's the right note for this character. Whereas Dern's thoughts are written all over his face, O'Neal keeps everything hidden inside and doesn't budge much. Some will look upon him as being a cipher, but O'Neal does give you the impression that there's a lot more to this guy going on in his head, but he sure as hell isn't going to let you in on any of it. And it all works.

So over the years THE DRIVER has become known only to Hill fanatics, Noir fans, or 70s movie lovers and hasn't gotten much recognition beyond that. Apparently, Hill attended a 2002 American Cinematheque screening of his director's cut, which was about 30 minutes longer, none of which is on the DVD. Perhaps it's time for a double dip, huh Fox? I'd be up for that.