“The Black Album” scene … from “Boyhood” (2014) dir. Richard Linklater

One of my favorite scenes from “Boyhood.” The father played by Ethan Hawke gives his son a mix CD and tries to explain why it’s so great. His son, played by Ellar Coltrane, graciously accepts the CD, but has a look on his face that he’s been down this road many times before with his Dad. The Hawke and Coltrane characters are good people, but let’s just say, I’m trying really hard NOT to be that kind of dad re: pop culture and my kids.

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“25th Hour” (2002) dir. Spike Lee / scr. David Benioff

One of the best films of the 2000s, one of director Spike Lee’s best films, and one that is … sadly … almost completely forgotten these days, “25th Hour” is a tremendously powerful drama about the last day of freedom for a drug dealer, played by Edward Norton, before going to prison for 7 years.  Based on David Benioff’s novel (who also wrote the screenplay), “25th Hour” is an incredibly complex look at family, friendship, morals, the legal system, and culture … specifically a post-9/11 New York City. The performances by Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Barry Pepper, Rosario Dawson, Brian Cox, and Anna Paquin are all extraordinary and Oscar-worthy.  The editing is superb, the script is intense, and the ominous music composed by Terrence Blanchard is one of the finest scores I’ve ever heard for a dramatic film.

Despite how great this movie is, I can understand why it’s not that popular.  Despite many moments of dark humor, it’s an extremely troubling and depressing film.  Because it’s about guilt … it’s about regret … its about that feeling where you wish life had a rewind button for actions or inactions.   But this is truly an amazing film and worthy of your attention.

Probably the best scene in the film is when Norton’s character delivers an angry, beyond politically incorrect 5-minute diatribe about every social, ethnic, and economic groups in New York City.  It was part of the original novel, and ironically, Benioff said it was inspired by a similar rant from Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.”  However, when he wrote the original draft of the script, he sheepishly left it out because he was afraid of what Lee would say.  However, Lee loved it and insisted it be put back in.  The rant may be considered highly offensive, but you must watch it until the end when Norton’s character turns the anger back on himself and realizes he’s the one responsible for his fate.  Again, powerful stuff.

“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.

“The Horror of it All” by Adam Rockoff

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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!

“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.

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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.

“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!