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.