“Inside Out” (2015) dir. Pete Docter / Ronnie del Carmen

Just saw Pixar’s “Inside Out” … In a word: brilliant … Smart without being smart-alecky, funny without being pandering, sad without being maudlin, poignant without being cloying.  While it’s a film that safe for kids and that kids will enjoy, it is NOT a kids movie.  One of the best and most complex examinations I’ve ever seen in a film context about emotions, psychology, dreams, and growing up.  Incredibly deep and moving.  It’s a movie that will seriously make you reconsider your life.  The best Pixar movie ever made.  Yes, I said it.

“One of Us” (2015) by Local H

My favorite song of the year so far.  Local H singer/guitarist Scott Lucas wrote “One of Us” while he was on his way to a wake for a friend. As Lucas told the Onion AV Club last April “It’s a funeral song, but I didn’t want it to be morose. I wanted it to be unsentimental and kind of triumphant, and above all else, unapologetic. Anything less would’ve felt like lying.”  This is an amazing, powerful song, the best highlight of many highlights from their terrific album “Hey, Killer.”

“Radio Radio” – Elvis Costello with the Beastie Boys (from the SNL 25th Anniversary Show, circa 2000)

Before you watch this clip, here’s some background …

Elvis Costello made his US debut on “Saturday Night Live” (SNL) in early 1978.  He was supposed to perform “Less Than Zero,” a song about racism in England and Costello got through about 15 seconds of the song before he abruptly cut it and launched into “Radio Radio,” an extremely critical song about the increasing control of media by corporations.

Cut to 22 years later … SNL is broadcasting a 25-year tribute show.  The Beastie Boys perform their hit “Sabotage” when Costello runs on stage and … well … I think you can figure out where it goes from there …  a clever way to pay tribute to one of SNL’s most notorious moments and a terrific performance of one of Costello’s best songs with help from one of the most innovative rock / rap groups of all-time.

Even nearly 40 years later, the lyrics still bite:

“Some of my friends sit around every evening and they worry about the times ahead.
But everybody else is overwhelmed by indifference and the promise of an early bed.
You either shut up or get cut up, they don’t wanna hear about it.
It’s only inches on the reel-to-reel.
And the radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools tryin’ to anesthetize the way that you feel.”

“Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) dir. George Miller, scr. George Miller / Brendan McCarthy / Nico Lathouris, editor: Margaret Sixel

Believe the hype.  “Mad Max: Fury Road” is one of the most ferocious, heart-stopping, breathtaking movies ever made. When previews for this film started appearing several months ago, they looked amazing, but I stopped short of getting my hopes up because I’ve seen countless terrific, expertly edited trailers for films that wound up being much less than the trailers promised.  Then the reviews started pouring in and not only were they rapturous, they were better than most serious Oscar-contender films usually receive.  Again, I tempered my enthusiasm, because even mass critical opinion can be wrong.

But I was beyond pleased to see that not only did “Fury Road” live up to the hype, it exceeded it on many levels.  As much as director George Miller redefined action films with the first two “Mad Max” films back in the late 1970s / early 1980s, Miller tops himself with “Fury Road” with some of the most brilliantly staged action sequences I’ve ever seen in a motion picture.  I could try to describe what Miller does here, but it would sound lame, if not ridiculous or cheesy.  What Miller does here could have gone disastrously wrong, but he pulls it off beautifully. Trust me, you just have to see the film to know what I’m talking about.  A big part of Miller’s success is due to Margaret Sixel’s wonderfully insane editing.  If there’s a shoe-in for an Oscar this year, it’s for Sixel.

The biggest surprise about “Fury Road” is that while Tom Hardy’s titular character Max Rockatansky is in almost every scene of this film, Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa character is the heart of the film.  Theron’s performance is not only the equal of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from the “Alien’ franchise (the gold standard of female action characters), Theron exceeds the very high bar set by Weaver.  Furiosa is a character that has been living her entire life facing unspeakable horrors to not only gain the evil leader Immortan Joe’s trust, but to use that trust to escape Joe’s reign of terror and gain the freedom for Joe’s multiple concubines.  This is someone who has been operating on slow burn for multiple decades, someone who has had to keep her emotions close to her vest to risk her life to save the lives of others.  Theron’s character is not only brave, but is someone who has to constantly improvise when things don’t go according to plan.  If Theron does not receive an Oscar nomination for her performance in “Fury Road,” if not the win, it will be a grave injustice.

And this is not to slight Hardy’s performance as Max in the least.  Hardy is a more than worthy substitute for Mel Gibson who justifiably became a star after his turn in the first two “Mad Max” films.  Hardy portrays the right mix of bravery and insanity that we expect of Max.  But despite the “Mad Max” title of the film, this is really Furiosa’s story.  While Max (again) learns to regain his humanity, I hope this won’t be theme of future Max installments.  If both Gibson and Hardy can sell us on the fact that they’re not numbed-out nihilists by the end of “Road Warrior” and “Fury Road” respectively, hopefully whatever screenplays accompany future Max films will take the character further instead of repeating the formula again.  But again, this is not to slight “Fury Road.”  This is the first Max film in 30 years and if we need to be reminded of the original trope, that’s fine.  Just please, Mr. Miller, take the character further in future installments.

I’m afraid if I say anymore, it will dilute your enjoyment of “Fury Road” if you haven’t seen it yet.  Despite the unanimous critical praise, please note that this is an extremely violent film and if you are queasy about such things, you will not like this no matter what praise I or others bestow upon it.  But I will say that the hype is justified and “Fury Road” is a film for the ages, if not a classic.

“The Horror of it All” by Adam Rockoff

51Tw4SnTRAL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

In the introduction to “The Horror of it All,” author Adam Rockoff admits he’s attempting to do for horror films what Chuck Klosterman did so expertly with his debut book “Fargo Rock City” for heavy metal music: provide a combination memoir  / detailed analysis of a favored … and here’s a word that Rockoff detests … “genre.”  And I’m happy to say that Rockoff’s book is the equal to Klosterman’s brilliant and immensely entertaining debut book.  Regardless of whether you’re a fan of horror films or not, “The Horror of it All” is an incredibly fun and thought-provoking read.  I don’t agree with all of Rockoff’s assertions here (though to be fair, I haven’t been much of a horror fan since the 1980s), but you don’t have to be a horror fan to groove on the depth and passion with which Rockoff discusses horror films and American culture.   And while you may disagree vehemently with what he has to say, the man undoubtedly knows his s–t and can talk about it in a way that kept me riveted for its nearly 300 pages.

Yes, horror fans may find a lot to quibble with here, since Rockoff gives contrary views of such horror classics as “The Exorcist,” “Alien,” and “Halloween.”  Film snobs may disregard Rockoff’s serious discussion of films like “My Bloody Valentine” and “The Burning.”  But I welcome a sincere and intelligent discussion of any film, especially if I think a particular film is crap (mainly because I’m one of the worst offenders of rushing to judgment on most topics).  One of the highlights of “Horror of it All” is a chapter that takes down Siskel & Ebert’s legendary condemnation of slasher films, point by point, as if Rockoff is Jim Garrison analyzing the Zapruder film of J.F.K.’s assassination.  Also welcome is his objective analysis of the clumsy marriage of heavy metal and horror films, as well as the P.M.R.C. hearings of the mid-1980s.  Rockoff actually made me feel sympathy for Tipper Gore for the first time, even though he obviously disagrees with her position.

There’s a lot to chew on here, but if you have an open mind and a good sense of humor, this is a marvelous and very smart critical look at horror films.  Dave says check it out!

“Schoolboy Blues” (aka “C–ksucker Blues”) (1970) by the Rolling Stones

“Schoolboy Blues” is the infamous song the Rolling Stones recorded to get out of their contract with Decca Records, when they were told they owed Decca one more single before their contract was up.   Again, be careful what you wish for or what you demand.  Decca, of course, were horrified by the results and never released this officially.

Objectively speaking, this isn’t quite so bad.  Musically speaking, it sounds like a rawer version of “Sister Morphine,” only with the subject matter being male prostitution instead of heroin.   This is the Ramones’ “53rd and 3rd” six years earlier … only a LOT more explicit.  So explicit in fact, that I will say this is … ahem … not safe for work.   OK, you’ve been told the tale.  Either listen or don’t listen.

“Can’t Hardly Wait” (demo) by The Replacements (recorded circa 1984-1985)

Here’s an early, rawer version of “Can’t Hardly Wait” that was originally intended as a song for the Replacements’ 1985 album “Tim” but was later reworked into a much slicker version for 1987’s “Pleased to Meet Me” … with the requisite horn and string section that was de rigeur for 1980s major label rock recordings.  All I can say after hearing this earlier naked version is “Holy f–king s–t!”  This was a great song even with the “slick” arrangement, but hearing it without all the polish is revelatory.

“He May Be Dead – But He’s Elvis” (1979) dir. John Mhyre / scr. John Mhyre and Ken Owen

Here’s a real find … the incredibly tasteless, but extremely funny late 1970s short film “He May Be Dead – But He’s Elvis” which mercilessly satirizes the exploitation of Elvis Presley’s death by taking said exploitation into even darker territory.   I first read about this film years ago in Greil Marcus’s legendary analysis on American rock / soul music “Mystery Train” (now in a recently updated 6th edition) and while re-reading it the other day, got the notion that this short may be on YouTube.

Again, the humor is pretty sick, but not that far removed than a lot of stuff you see nowadays via reality TV.  I can only imagine what this looked like back in the late 1970s.  If you have a strong stomach, Dave says check it out.

And while you’re at it, if you’ve never read “Mystery Train,” check that out too.

“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.

unposteranimallarge

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.