“National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1978) dir. John Landis / scr. Harold Ramis, Doug Kenney, and Chris Miller

Many people of my generation wax rhapsodic about their experience seeing “Star Wars” for the first time in the summer of 1977 on a big screen.  I’m not going to deny how amazing that was.  But for me, as a 33-degree comedy nerd, “National Lampoon’s Animal House” was my holy grail back when I was an impressionable pre-teenager.  Let me explain the difference: “Star Wars” was PG-rated, so you could easily buy a ticket as an 8-year old and get in.  “Animal House” was R-rated, which meant that you could only see it if you could sneak in, or be accompanied by an irresponsible adult.  Please remember this was a time before HBO and other “uncensored” movie channels were a common phenomenon for most households.

The first time I was aware of “Animal House” was when I saw a full-page ad for it in the Washington Post, during the summer of 1978 when I was visiting my Dad.  At that time, the movie was in limited-release, showing in only a handful of theaters, likely to build word-of-mouth before it was released to multiple theaters.  When I saw the ad, the movie was only playing in one theater (the Jennifer Theater),  but had a full-page ad.  I mean, it had to be a big movie, right?   The ad blew my mind.  The poster was a mishmash of multiple outrageous things going on in one image.  I took that movie page home with me to Tidewater, Virginia and studied that image religiously, like it was Picasso’s “Guernica.”  This was an outrageous, off-limits (due to its R-rating) film that promised all kinds of illicit pleasures.  I became a VERY obsessed 8-year old.

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As I entered fourth grade, I ran into classmates who claimed to have seen the film, who told me in explicit detail about all of the wonders they witnessed.  When I finally saw “Animal House,” in a heavily-edited TV version broadcast on the NBC network circa 1981, I thought my classmates were full of s–t.  I enjoyed the film a lot, but very little of what they described was there.  Then, in the fall of 1981, my Dad came to visit us and got use of a house that a friend of his owned, but was not occupying at the time.  The house had one of those exotic mechanical devices called a VCR … and because I was a movie-fanatic, I made a beeline for the tape shelf.  I made a LOT of discoveries on that shelf, which I kept to myself, but signaled to my older brother to take a walk with me away from the house to have a “talk.” I told him that this tape collection had a copy of “Animal House” and discussed whether or not this was the “uncut” version. He advised me to keep it cool and that we would check it out later.  Well, lo and behold, it WAS the uncut version and finally realized that my classmates were NOT full of s–t.  (I also discovered a tape called “Deep Throat,” but that’s a discussion for another day).

For a brief period, “Animal House” was considered the most outrageous, most scandalous mainstream American comedy film.  And … was also the most financially successful.  How successful?  During its production, director John Landis was told he needed a “name” in order to secure a $2 million budget.  Landis talked to Donald Sutherland about taking a part as “Dave” the professor for either a flat fee of $35,000 or the SAG minimum and 10 percent of the gross.  Sutherland opted for the $35,000. “Animal House” grossed $141 million (when $141 million was a lot of money), which means Sutherland would have made $14 million had he taken the 2nd deal.  Heavy sigh …

Like most blockbuster films, audiences interpreted the film to reflect their personal beliefs.  Progressives saw the Deltas as a group of non-conformists fighting against a Nixonian-dean and rival group of Conservative blue-noses (the Omegas).  Conservatives adopted the Deltas as their heroes, because they saw the Deltas as fighting against political correctness (also true).  The real deal is somewhere in between because “Animal House” … like other great comedy films … is an incoherent text.  Seriously, all the best film comedies, whether they be “Duck Soup,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “M*A*S*H,” “Putney Swope,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Female Trouble,” “Eating Raoul,” “Repo Man,” “There’s Something About Mary,” “South Park,” etc. are all problematic texts … because there’s something inherently funny about laughing about things we’re not supposed to laugh about.  That’s what makes them funny.  Comedy is not … and should never be … politically correct. Great comedy should always make you feel ashamed …  ideally, MORE than a little ashamed.

As for how “Animal House” holds up nowadays, it’s still very solid. It’s not as “outrageous” as it once was, but it’s still very sharp and holds up much better for me than the original “Star Wars” does.

“Happiness” (1998) scr./dir. Todd Solondz

“Happiness” is director / writer Todd Solondz’s best film and one of the most darkly humorous and despairing views of humanity ever committed to celluloid.  What makes the film particularly intriguing and disturbing is how Solondz humanizes people we would normally demonize and despise.  Please note that when I say humanize I don’t mean “sympathize.” One of the prominent characters in the film is, without a doubt, a “monster” but I don’t get the impression that Solondz wants you to forgive this character’s horrendous actions.  Despite how transgressive and distasteful many of the characters’ actions are in “Happiness,” Solondz challenges the viewer to see these characters as human beings.  Please note that this is not Solondz’s endorsement of bad behavior, but a deep understanding of why seemingly normal people do horrendous things.  As Roger Ebert noted in his 4-star review of “Happiness”: “”…the depraved are only seeking what we all seek, but with a lack of ordinary moral vision… In a film that looks into the abyss of human despair, there is the horrifying suggestion that these characters may not be grotesque exceptions, but may in fact be part of the mainstream of humanity….It is not a film for most people. It is certainly for adults only. But it shows Todd Solondz as a filmmaker who deserves attention, who hears the unhappiness in the air and seeks its sources.”

“Happiness” received an NC-17 from America’s rating board (MPAA) and was ultimately released without a rating.  The trailer at the link above does not even remotely plumb the depths of how disturbing this movie is.  According the Wikipedia, the Sundance Film Festival turned it down (despite the fact that Solondz won the Sundance Grand Prize in 1995) for being too “disagreeable.”  But it was the best movie I saw in 1998 and my wife, who seriously considered breaking up with me after I stupidly took her to see the documentary “Crumb” when we had just started dating, said “Happiness” was one of the best movies she’d ever seen.  Nearly 20 years later, “Happiness” still packs a hell of a punch and if you’ve never seen it, I encourage you to read more about it before you see it.  But … this is a great movie and worth your while if you have a strong stomach and a demented sense of humor.

“Thunder Road” (acoustic version) by Bruce Springsteen

“Thunder Road,” the opening track from Bruce Springsteen’s classic 1975 album, is widely regarded as not only one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs of all-time, but one of the most uplifting and positive ones as well.   However, this version of “Thunder Road” that Springsteen recorded, likely as a demo, is starkly different in tone and feeling.  Without changing any lyrics, this version of “Thunder Road” is mournful and very sad.  Instead of being the inspirational tale of a young couple leaving a small town to make their dreams come true despite the odds against them, this version is a tale of desperation and regret.   And all because of an arrangement that would feel right at home on a Leonard Cohen album.  While the “Born to Run” version of “Thunder Road” will make you feel like you can conquer the world, this acoustic version breaks your heart.

The fact that Springsteen can evoke two different emotions with the same lyrics speaks to his power as a songwriter and performer. As Nick Hornby said about this version of “Thunder Road” in his book “Songbook” (aka “31 Songs”): “It’s slow, and mournful, and utterly convincing: an artist who can persuade you of the truth of what he is singing with either version is an artist who is capable of an awful lot.”

For another contrast, I would also urge you to check out this live version of “Thunder Road” from a 1975 concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon.  This is closer to the version on “Born to Run,” but it’s mainly done with a solo piano and no rousing guitar work.  Again, it’s not depressing like the acoustic demo discussed earlier, but this version is a lot more melancholy than the version on “Born to Run.”  Apparently, this was the way “Thunder Road” was performed in concert until around 1977 or so.

“Full Metal Jacket Diary” by Matthew Modine (2005 / 2012)

OK, movie nerds with iPads, listen up … There’s an app you must purchase immediately.  It’s Matthew Modine’s “Full Metal Jacket Diary.”  First some background ….

During the making of Stanley Kubricks’s classic 1987 Vietnam War drama “Full Metal Jacket,” lead actor Matthew Modine kept a diary about his experiences while making the film and also shot many photos.  In 2005, Modine compiled his diary entries and photos into a monumentally stunning and awesome metal hardcover coffee table book called “Full Metal Jacket Diary.”  With it’s size, metal cover, and a price of around $50 at the time, it was not going to be a huge bestseller.  But it was highly acclaimed not only because of it’s concept and beauty, but it’s one of the rare day-to-day accounts of what it was like to work on a film set with the legendary and difficult Kubrick.

The book has been out of print for years, but it has been re-released in a very interesting and innovative way: an iPad app. The book has been redesigned with all the text, photos, and now … Modine’s narration … into an immersive audio / visual experience that is incredible, to say the least.  The app’s price of  $9.99 may seem high, but when you consider that you would pay $9.99 or more for an ebook or audiobook … and you get the experience of both in a beautifully constructed new format … it’s actually a terrific bargain.  You can even download the first chapter for free through the iTunes app store if you’re not entirely convinced.

Trust me when I say that if you’re a fan of cinema, this is a must-have app.  And if you don’t have an iPad, I highly recommend buying the audio version of the book through Audible or through Amazon on CD.  Dave says “check it out!”

http://www.fullmetaljacketdiary.com/

The dangers of hipness by proxy … or Lenny Bruce “hanging out” with Hugh Hefner on “Playboy’s Penthouse” Oct 24, 1959

By now, most people know the story about how a certain uptight Midwestern uber-nerd of the 1950s … Hugh Hefner … rebranded himself as a suave, hip (wait for it …) “playboy” and turned publishing and American culture on its head.  And all kidding aside, “Playboy” magazine was a remarkable accomplishment.  In a post World War II era where 10% of people interviewed thought an unmarried person could be happy (80%  believing that bacherlors were “sick, neurotic, and immoral”), Hefner made being a bachelor “cool,” selling an alternative image of unlimited sex and pleasure to a nation shackled to a notion that suburban domesticity was the ideal.  In addition, Hefner craftily classed up his magazine with important writers and thinkers of the day, not only giving his so-called “dirty” magazine a sense of sophistication, but exposing mainstream America to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, John Steinbeck, James Jones, W. Somerset Maugham, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and John Updike.  Of course, Hefner was not the first person to expose America to these literary giants, but by placing their writing among the nude pictorials, mainstream Americans arguably became more exposed to these works based on their placement in “Playboy.”

Yet at the same time, Hefner was actually more in line with the conservative 1950s than his image projected at the time.  Per Mike Edision, in his brilliant and entertaining look at America’s pioneering print pornographers “Dirty Dirty Dirty,” who observed: “Despite his protests, (Hefner) was the very definition of bourgeois.  He gave lip service to mainstream American values, but he advocated the conspicuous consumption that was at the heart of the nation’s pride in its hard-won prosperity.  In this case it was sports cars, not station wagons; stereo components, not washer-dryers – but it was constructed with the same vapid building blocks of materialism and peddled by the same choice Mammon who pushed aluminum siding and riding mowers. Hef was creating a new playbook for the single male, but it was still based on the old caste system of He with the Coolest Stuff Wins.”  In other words, Hefner was one of the most successful marketers of consumerism as rebellion.

So who better to drop a turd into Hefner’s impeccably created martini than the then-current king of “sick humor” Lenny Bruce. In this late 1950s television version of the Playboy Lifestyle (“Playboy Penthouse’), Hefner tries to navigate a manufactured urban penthouse set in tuxedo, selling the Playboy philosophy while still looking a little uncomfortable in the role.  While Hefner was a definite fan and supporter of Bruce’s over the years, Bruce was obviously invited to this televised shindig to provide a some reflected hip glory on Hefner.  And Bruce isn’t having any of it, brutally identifying the truth behind the Playboy philosophy “Playboy is very chic, and you can say sophisticated, and the magazine is filled with sports coats, about your views about sports cars, and I am glad you have one, ’cause you don’t care about the people who don’t have money … they can wait for their own magazine. ‘Field and Stream’? … The Playmate has a duck in her mouth.”  Hefner gamely attempts to take it on the chin, though he’s obviously very uneasy about Bruce calling him out.  A very funny and subversive American pop culture moment.

Oh, and again, please read Mike Edison’s “Dirty, Dirty, Dirty,” a ridiculously entertaining look at not only Hefner, but Bob Guccione, Larry Flynt, and Al Goldstein.

“My Bodyguard” (1980) dir. Tony Bill, scr. Alan Ormsby

OK, I got my kids to watch one of my favorite movies from my so-called “formative” years, the 1980 sleeper hit “My Bodyguard.”  I wasn’t too sure how they’d take it, but they loved it.  My 9-year old son asked me incredulously, “How is THIS a PG-rated movie?”  My answer?  This is a superior “youth” film from an era where people accepted a certain degree of edginess in their mainstream entertainment.  Don’t forget that Jonathan Kaplan’s 1979 classic “Over the Edge,” one of the darkest and most dangerous “youth” films ever made and one that would NEVER be produced in these times, was a PG-rated film.

“Bodyguard” is a great film that mixes humor, pathos, and a lot of darkness to provide a very “real” take on familiar teen trauma scenario: bully and his cronies intimidate others into paying extortion for so-called “protection” from an unknown terror … but mainly from themselves. “Bodyguard’ is an expertly written and directed comedy-drama about such a scenario with a lot of 1970s grit. There’s terrific performances by Chris Makepeace, Adam Baldwin, Matt Dillon, Martin Mull, Ruth Gordon, Paul Quandt, and a very young (and adorable) Joan Cusack.  “Bodyguard” isn’t perfect, but it’s head and shoulders above almost any film featuring teenagers over the last several years. A very smart, sardonic, and sometimes sad and dark film with a terrific ending.  If you’ve never seen it, please check it out.

“Boyhood” (2014) dir. / scr. Richard Linklater

By now, most people know the story of the making of “Boyhood.”  Writer-director Richard Linklater assembled a group of actors 12 years ago to document the growth of a boy from six years old to 18, showing moments from each year of his life and family.  The principal actors (Ellar Coltrane as Mason Jr., Lorelei Linklater as his sister Samantha, Patricia Arquette as mother Olivia, and Ethan Hawke as Mason Sr.) filmed parts of the story over 12 years, while the director and actors worked on other projects.  The result is an extraordinary look at ordinary people, struggling to make sense of the challenges around them.  Like most of us, some years are good, some bad, most of them on a continuum in-between.

“Boyhood” is one of the best movies of our current century.   With the amount of acclaim “Boyhood” has received in the past several months, the contrarian side of me wanted to find things not to like about it.  While “Boyhood” is not a perfect film, it’s one of the most satisfying film experiences I’ve ever had.

As Olivia and Mason Sr., Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke deliver the best performances I’ve ever seen of single parents in a fictional narrative.  One thing that becomes very clear when you become a parent is that most of the time, you’re making it up as you go along.  No one has it figured out and when you think you do, life and karma have a funny way of reminding you that you really don’t.  Olivia and Mason Sr. don’t always make the best decisions, but overall, they’re good people and good parents.  At the beginning, Olivia is the mature one, while Mason Sr. is still finding himself … a task that’s easier when you don’t have primary custody of two small children.  Olivia makes decisions that most of us think would be good ones (going back to school, choosing to marry a professor), but those decisions take an unexpectedly bad turn.  That’s the funny thing about life … even when you thoughtfully and carefully make choices, sometimes those choices turn out to be bad ones.  Arquette does a terrific job of conveying the complexity of someone who seems to have things figured out, but continually makes bad choices (especially when it comes to men).  Trust me, she OWNS the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress this year.  At the same time, watching Mason Sr. evolve from lost slacker to responsible adult is a remarkable achievement on Hawke’s part.  What could have easily devolved into a stereotype of a terminally immature and lost manchild, Mason Sr. is always likeable and most importantly, a very good parent, even at his most callow.

As the young leads, Coltrane and (Lorelei) Linklater do an extraordinary job of playing regular kids.  In a film like this, there might be a tendency to portray these children as wise beyond their years in some way, but for the most part, Linklater defaults towards keeping it real.  My only quibble … and trust me, it’s the only one in an otherwise terrific movie … is that by the time Mason Jr. approaches his 11th grade year, he comes off more as a thoughtful adult’s idealized portrait of a teenager than someone who is actually that age.  It becomes especially clear in the romance between Mason Jr. and his girlfriend Sheena.  Sorry, I realize that some of us out there may have had amazing significant others at that age, but no one has ever had a girlfriend or boyfriend as cool as Mason Jr. and Sheena.  They come off more like mature 24-year olds than 17-year olds.  Maybe that scenario does exist in the world, but experience tells me “no.”

Still, the great thing about “Boyhood” as well as Linklater’s earlier “Dazed and Confused,” is the way he allows his characters to do stupid, sometimes reckless, things … and there’s no horrible consequence that results.  This may not be what we conventionally expect as moviegoers.  When people warn a character about a danger or when we see someone do something careless in a film, we’re always expecting that to pay off in a negative way.  But in real life, that doesn’t always happen.  That’s not to say that bad things don’t happen to the characters in “Boyhood” on occasion, but for the most part, the film allows its characters to make mistakes and lets them off easy.   It’s clear, not only from “Boyhood,” but from most of his films, that Linklater genuinely likes his characters.  That spirit is what makes Linklater’s films so satisfying to watch and what ultimately makes you root for him and his films.

“Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film” by Patton Oswalt

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Attention all comedy and film nerds … Patton Oswalt’s latest book “Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film” just dropped today. Great book. However, my only complaint is the same complaint I had about his first book “Zombie Spaceship Wasteland” … too f–king short (though not as short as “Zombie”)!

Key takeaway (a realization by Oswalt after spending all hours of the night with his friends complaining about “Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace” in 1999):

“Movies – the truly great ones (and sometimes the truly bad) – should be a drop in the overall fuel formula of your life. A fuel that should include sex and love and food and movement and friendships and your own work. All of it, feeding the engine. But the engine of your life should be your life. And it hits me, sitting there with my friends, that for all of our bluster and detailed exotic knowledge about film, we aren’t contributing anything to film …

And here I am. I’ve traded a late-morning coffee shop for a late-night, post-screening bar, angry at George Lucas for producing something that doesn’t live up to my exacting standards, and failing to see that the four hours of pontificating and connecting and correcting his work could be spent creating two or three pages of my own.”

Did I mention this was an awesome book?  Dave says check it out!

“The Interview” (2014) dir. Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, scr. Dan Sterling

You’ve all heard about the controversy surrounding this one ad nauseam, so I’ll cut to the chase … “The Interview” is one of the ballsiest, funniest movies I’ve seen in years and the best satire of American media since Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers.” Having said that, let’s discuss further.

Yes, the premise is tasteless, considering it involves the assassination of a living world leader.  Yes, I would probably be outraged if another country made a similar film about our president.  But the North Korean government is not above parody or satire. If anything, a government that has been as secretive and oppressive and delusional about their world image is begging to be made fun of.

To the filmmaker’s credit, the portrayal of Kim Jong-un in “The Interview” is kinder than any other way he’s been portrayed in the world media, including by the North Korean government itself. The portrayal may not be accurate, but the filmmakers identify a humanity in the North Korean leader that very few have bothered to acknowledge.

“The Interview” is less an attack on North Korea or even Kim Jong-un than on the American media for the degradation of news into infotainment, the hubris of modern-day journalists, and our obsession with celebrity. Yes, there are some crude jokes typical of the Rogen / Goldberg wheelhouse. But there’s far fewer of them than in their other films. “The Interview” isn’t a perfect film, but a lot of the more critical reviews I’ve read miss the mark entirely, coming off more outraged that the likes of Rogen / Goldberg attempted a political satire than by anything in the film itself.

I realize that the controversy over “The Interview”‘s release is going to cause some people to overvalue and undervalue this film. In our current climate, it may be impossible to review it objectively. I’m a fan of Rogen’s / Goldberg’s, but wasn’t expecting a lot given the mixed reviews. However, I’m trusting my gut on this one. This film made me laugh … frequently and very hard. I enjoyed it more than their previous film “This is the End.” “The Interview” may not be “Dr. Strangelove,” but what’s here is extremely funny and smart much of the time.