“Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991” written by Michael Azerrad

One of the best music books of the last 10-15 years is Michael Azerrad’s history of American alternative rock from 1981-1991, “Our Band Could Be Your Life.”  Released in 2001 and available in digital format within the next day or so, “Life” is the college radio version of “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” (Peter Biskind’s exhaustive and stellar look at Hollywood of the 1970s).  Azerrad devotes each chapter to a different seminal band of the period (Mission of Burma, Butthole Surfers, The Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Black Flag, Big Black, Hüsker Dü, Fugazi, Minor Threat, Mudhoney, The Replacements, Beat Happening, and Dinosaur Jr.).  Some of the stories you may know … others you won’t.  But if you have any interest at all in rock history (especially alternative / progressive rock), “Life” is a must.  The chapter on the Butthole Surfers by itself is worth the price of the entire book.  Seriously, the chapter reads like Hunter S. Thompson smoking angel dust with Monty Python with chaos, insanity, humor, and violence ensuing like a motherf–ker!

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“Up” (2009) dir. Pete Docter

One of the most moving portrayals of a marriage ever put on film was in Disney/Pixar’s 2009 Oscar-winning animated film “Up.”  The attached montage has no spoken words, and is a combination of two pivotal scenes from the film: one towards the beginning … the other towards the end.  However, both scenes bookend each other nicely and I’m glad someone put these two scenes together.  One of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen on film.  Warning: you will not have a dry eye watching this.

“Star 80” dir. Bob Fosse

Nowadays, Bob Fosse has sadly become a pop culture joke.  Anytime one wants to make fun of musical theater, they throw up jazz hands and say “FOSSE!” dramatically.  However, the man was a true pioneer of modern musical theater and also made some amazing films.  His filmography is short, but not many can boast as much popular and critical acclaim as Fosse achieved.  Three of the five films he directed (“Cabaret,” “Lenny,” and “All That Jazz”) were nominated for Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director (he won for “Cabaret’) and were box-office hits.

However, Fosse’s best and strangely, most critically and commercially reviled film was 1983’s “Star 80.”  “Star 80” is the sad, oftentimes unbearably intense and depressing biography of 1980 Playboy Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten, who was brutally murdered by her estranged husband and former manager, suitcase pimp Paul Snider.  Critics complained that Fosse focused too much on Snider and not enough on Stratten.  While this is not necessarily unwarranted criticism,  Fosse’s exploration of Snider is one of the most complex and empathetic portrayals of a human monster ever committed to celluloid.  Richard Gere was originally attached to play Snider, and while he would have been good, Eric Roberts was by far, the better choice to play Snider and his portrayal of Snider is one of the most ferocious performances I’ve ever seen on film.  Between 1978’s criminally underrated “King of the Gypsies” and “Star 80,” Roberts really should have become a powerhouse star/actor on par with Robert DeNiro and Sean Penn.

From Martin Gottfried’s brilliant biography of Fosse “All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse”, Gottfried relayed a chilling tale of how Roberts finally understood how to play Snider.  Roberts had a lot of difficulty with the role, breaking down and telling Fosse “S–t! I don’t know what the f–k I’m doing.”  Fosse chillingly grabbed Roberts, stared into his eyes and said “Look at me! If I weren’t successful … if I weren’t successful  … look at me … that’s Paul Snider.  That’s what your playing.  Now show me ME!”  The attached clip, from the beginning of “Star 80” with Roberts, tells you all you need to know about Snider.   However, the clip does contain nudity and bad language, so not safe for work or little ones.

Polly Platt, a belated appreciation

You may or may not know who Polly Platt is / was, but  Platt was a dynamic creative force in Hollywood from the late 1960s through the 1990s.  She was married to (and then famously divorced from) acclaimed director Peter Bogdanovich and was production designer (and, as many people believe, contributed significantly more creatively) on all of his early 1970s masterpieces/hits (“Targets,” “The Last Picture Show,” “What’s Up Doc?,” “Paper Moon”).  She wrote the screenplay for Louis Malle’s controversial English language debut film “Pretty Baby.” She was the art director on “Terms of Endearment” and co-produced many of James L. Brooks’s films, including “Broadcast News” and “War of the Roses.”  She was the producer of Cameron Crowe’s classic “Say Anything.”  And, she was responsible for plucking Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson out of nowhere, producing their  stunningly hilarious debut “Bottle Rocket” in 1996.

Her marriage to and divorce from Bogdanovich was fictionalized in the conventional, but clever Hollywood satire from 1984 “Irreconcilable Differences” (with Shelley Long playing the Platt character and Drew Barrymore playing her daughter).

Platt sadly died in July 2011, but her contribution to American film over the last 50 years can not be underestimated.  For more on the Platt story, please read Peter Biskind’s classic book on 1970s Hollywood “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” and more significantly, Rachel Abramowitz’s exhaustive look at women in Hollywood from the 1960s through the new millenium, “Is That a Gun In Your Pocket?”

Below are trailers for her greatest films:
The Last Picture Show (1971)

Say Anything (1989)

Bottle Rocket (1996)

“Fairytale of New York” – The Pogues (featuring Kirsty MacColl)

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A tragic and funny Christmas classic. Pogues lead singer Shane McGowan channels his inner Tom Waits for this wonderfully down-and-out duet with Kirsty MacColl. Some politically incorrect language, so not safe for work or little ones.  Look for Matt Dillon as a beat cop putting McGowan in jail.

“Young Adult” (2011) dir. Jason Reitman / scr. Diablo Cody

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One of the best and most underrated comedies of late is Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s 2011 film “Young Adult”. Far better than their previous collaboration (2007’s “Juno”), “Young Adult” boasts Oscar-worthy performances by Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt and is far more complex than its (fairly funny) preview would make you think.

The plot does seem sitcom simple: high school queen bitch who made good goes back to her hometown under the delusion she can get her now-married boyfriend back. However, while Theron does play a fairly rotten human being, it’s far from a one-dimensional portrayal. Like everyone else, her character has had her share of disappointments and heartbreak. Theron does make you feel for her, even though (as said earlier) her character is pretty awful.

Conversely, the people around her (who would normally be her straight, normal foils) are not let off the hook, either. While they are much better people than Theron’s character, Cody shows that they have their own human moments, as well. Patton Oswalt’s disabled character drowns his bitterness in booze and self-pity. Her otherwise nice and easy-going ex-boyfriend has a subtle, but unmistakable moral lapse. Even her ex-boyfriend’s wife, who is seen as flawless, has her own issues. If not, then why would she invite her husband’s bitchy ex-girlfriend to her baby shower unless it was meant as a subtle (or not-so-subtle) “f–k you”?

All of this may sound heavy handed, but Reitman/Cody handle it in a wonderfully subdued manner. One of the film’s strengths is how so much detail is conveyed about each character without calling attention to it. It’s not what I would call a “feel-good” comedy, but it’s often hilarious in a “hide your eyes and cringe” kind of way. If you’re a fan of Larry David or Louis C.K., you’ll probably dig it.

“The Bells of St. Mary” – The Drifters

Another great, soulful, holiday classic … this time from the Drifters.  This version of “The Bells of St. Mary” is sublime and was used to chilling effect in Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” when Joe Pesci’s character pays Samuel L. Jackson’s character a visit one morning.

“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” – Darlene Love

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Yes, I know I’m jumping the gun on this Christmas thing, but so are all the retailers this year, starting Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving evening. So, I’m getting the jump on them. Take that, retailers!

But I digress … This is my all-time favorite Christmas tune, especially towards the end where Love takes the vocals completely over the top. Puts a shiver up my spine every time. Say what you will about Phil Spector’s girl (as well as guns, drugs, and legal) troubles, he was a hell of a producer back in the day.