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.

Reflections on watching Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” 32 years after its 1982 relase

My 10-year old son watched an episode of the “The Goldbergs” this week where the lead child character watches “E.T.” in a movie theater for some untold multiple time.  As a result, my son asked if we could watch this tonight.  I watched it with him.  Here are my thoughts …

1.  This film still packs an emotional wallop.  I still found myself tearing up on multiple occasions, even though I’ve seen “E.T.” several times over the years.  Many people deride director Steven Spielberg as being “manipulative.”  I cry “bulls–t” on that.  Why is being called “manipulative” a bad thing for a film director?  Because the filmmaker made you feel an actual emotion?  Because you felt something in a film involving something fantastical instead of something “real”?  I realize there’s enough rancid and depressing “real” s–t in this world to make you feel agony 50x over.  But why is getting emotionally involved in something less than “real” a bad thing?  This is what’s called “drama” and sometimes, it’s OK to be involved in a drama that has faint resemblance to reality. Especially when it’s done well.

2. The composer John Williams deserves at least 50 percent credit for the artistic success of the film.  Not to deride Spielberg’s talent, but that score is one of the most emotional scores ever recorded.  This is music that can raise your spirits to the highest highs and then completely devastate you at the drop of a hat.  Williams has recorded many great and classic scores for filmmakers as diverse as Spielberg, George Lucas, Robert Altman, Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone.  His score for “E.T.” is arguably his best because it’s such an integral part of the film’s power.

3. I realize I’m going to catch a lot of s–t from cinephiles for saying this … but the unspoken influence on “E.T” may be … Robert Altman.  OK, I realize if Robert Altman directed this film, there would be 30 additional major characters and the extra-terrestrial part of the story would be reduced to a subplot … but stay with me here.   During significant parts of this film (especially during the first half), there is an emphasis on naturalistic dialogue (helped by brilliant editing and sound design) that isn’t always in the foreground.  You can hear what’s being said, but it’s way more subtle than a modern day filmmaker attacking similar material would allow.  Assisting this are brilliant … extremely real … performances by Henry Thomas, Robert McNaughton, Drew Barrymore, Dee Wallace, and every other child actor in this film.  Watching them interact together, you feel like you’re watching a real family interacting amongst each other and their friends.

4. For a special-effects central film from over 30 years ago, “E.T” holds up really well.  Ignoring the obvious clothing and set design cues from 1981-82, the non-CGI effects hold up much better than many CGI-heavy films from the 1990s.  Yes there are a few opticals that look out-of-date, but I’ll take those opticals over bad CGI any day.  Why?  Because you can do a lot with camera placement, editing, blocking, dialogue, set design, model building, and acting to make whatever limitations you have in special effects seem non-significant.  Spielberg assembled a talented crew and the result is remarkable and believable.

5. Spielberg was a bit of closet hipster here. Not only can you here Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” in the background while the boys are playing Dungeons & Dragons, Elliott’s brother Michael sings the lyrics from Elvis Costello’s “Accidents Will Happen” when he comes home from school and is looking through the fridge.

6.The final scene (shown above) is still amazing for its emotional intensity.

7. I realize hipsters claim “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” are Spielberg’s greatest films, but as great as those films are, “E.T.” is still the king.

“Heaven Help Us” (1985) dir. Michael Dinner, scr. Charles Purpura

One of the most pleasant surprises I’ve come across recently on HBO On Demand is seeing “Heaven Help Us” again for the first time since 1985.  This was a film that was promoted as a crass “Porky’s”-style teen sex comedy back in the day, but it’s so much more than that.  It’s an extremely funny, sometimes raunchy, but also frequently poignant look at a group of teenagers in Catholic high school in Brooklyn back in the mid-1960s.  The cast includes Andrew McCarthy, John Heard, Donald Sutherland, Wallace Shawn, a pre-“Entourage” and “Platoon” Kevin Dillon, a VERY young Patrick Dempsey, Stephen Geoffreys, Yeardley Smith (Lisa Simpson’s voice), and Mary Stuart Masterson in one of her first roles.  This is far from a perfect film, but it’s so damn good and much better than its critical and popular reception back in the day.  It’s weird to imagine this was considered disposable teen trash back in the day, because it’s not only better than most teen films released in the last several years, but much better than a lot of mainstream films released in the last 30 years.   Seriously, this is a sleeper that’s worth rediscovering.  The attached scene here is a school Brother, hilariously played by Wallace Shawn, delivering a stern lecture before a high school dance.  And yes, I still have more than a little crush on Mary Stuart Masterson’s character even 30 years later. Dave says check it out!

“Physical (You’re So)” – Adam & The Ants

I first heard this as a bonus track on Nine Inch Nails’ pulverizing 1992 EP “Broken.”  I thought this was an original and found out much later it was actually a cover of an Adam & The Ants song.  I checked out the Ants’ version, fully expecting it to be in the same mode of their other music:  upbeat, percussion-heavy pop.  All I can is that I was WAAAAY off-base in my assumption.  Adam & The Ants must have been listening to Killing Joke and Public Image Ltd. back in the day, because this is really, really heavy and intense.  In fact, it almost sounds like … you guessed it … Nine Inch Nails, but nearly 10 years before Nine Inch Nails.

“Dirt” – Spider Heart

Just discovered this incredible new band today, Spider Heart from San Francisco.  They could best be described as a cross between early Wire, the Stooges, Jane’s Addiction, Black Sabbath, and the Nymphs.  But even that description falls far short.  There are few bands that can be described as true originals and Spider Heart is one of them.   Lead singer May Black has been described as a cross between Iggy Pop and Janis Joplin and damn if that’s not an accurate assessment.  Except I would also throw Inger Lorre, Courtney Love, and Darby Crash into that mix.  This is authentically dangerous and thrilling music and if you like what you hear, do yourself a favor and check out their awesome EP “Dirt” available on iTunes and Google Play.  And of course, you can also enjoy them on Dave’s Strange Radio!