“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!

Harvey Keitel and Ellen Burstyn in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (1974) dir. Martin Scorsese

This is an incredibly intense scene from Martin Scorsese’s 1974 follow-up to “Mean Streets,” the proto-feminist “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”  The recently widowed Alice, portrayed by Ellen Burstyn, discovers that the man she has hooked up with (played by Harvey Keitel) is married with a child.  Keitel’s character then appears and unleashes a very scary side to his personality that Alice has not seen before.  Even though there’s not a lot of bad language per se, the intensity of this scene is shocking for a then PG-rated film.  Seriously, this entire scene is extraordinarily weird and disturbing for a mainstream film, but then again, that was Hollywood in the 1970s.  Burstyn earned an Oscar for her performance in “Alice,” which while well-deserved, probably should have earned it for “The Exorcist” or “Requiem for a Dream.” Still, a great performance and an amazing look at how ballsy mainstream American cinema once was.

“Tusk” – Fleetwood Mac … as depicted in a deleted scene from P.T. Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” (1997)

There’s a brilliant and crucial, nearly 6-minute scene from “Boogie Nights” that was deleted before its theatrical release set to Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk” that should be seen by any fan of the film.  In it, Becky Barnett (played by Nicole Ari Parker), the porn actress that got married to a Pep Boys manager, finds her new life outside the industry to be a nightmare of domestic violence, a scene all-too-common when a porn star marries a “civilian.”  The civilian, in question, is turned on by the notion of being with a porn star, but paradoxically, can’t handle that person’s past.  It’s the Madonna-whore complex at its ugliest.  Becky calls on Dirk Diggler (played by Mark Wahlberg) to rescue her, but he’s so far gone on cocaine to be an effective savior for Becky, wrecking his car on the way to saving her.

It’s likely Anderson deleted the scene from the final film because of the film’s overall length (already at over 2.5 hours), but he also mentioned (in the DVD commentary) he thought this was too depressing a scene for a film that has enough dark moments in its last third and that by deleting it, he wanted to give at least one of his characters a happy ending (Becky’s wedding earlier in the film).  While I don’t think the scene’s deletion detracts from the film, its inclusion would have made the final third more powerful, albeit more depressing.  Still, at the end of the scene, there’s no clue what happens to Becky after she confronts her husband.  So … as much as I admire this scene … Anderson probably made the best choice in deleting it.  Given that, it’s still worth seeing.  Please note that this is a very unpleasant scene to watch and is not safe for work or delicate sensibilities.

“Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie” (1980) dir. Tommy Chong

In honor of the “Dumb and Dumber” sequel being released this weekend, I thought I would give a shout-out to the original “Dumb and Dumber” duo, Cheech & Chong.  I saw this movie for the first time in January 1982 on HBO when I was 12 years old and sick with the flu.  It was one of the worst flu’s I’ve ever had, but up until that moment in my life, no movie ever made me laugh harder this this one and I directly credit the endorphins that this film released with my recovery a day afterwards.  Maybe I was on way to recovery anyway … who knows?  Who cares!  After nearly 35 years, this film still holds up as a demented and surreal comedy masterpiece and is the BEST of all the Cheech & Chong movies.  “Up in Smoke” is really good, but “Next Movie” is much better in my opinion.

Included here are several scenes from the film.  Most of them are juvenile and stupid and not safe for work.  But even as a jaded mid-40s something, they still make me laugh.

My favorite scene is a weird scene where the fellas visit the local welfare office so Cheech can get a quickie with one of his girlfriends while Chong sits in the lobby with clinically insane people, including … what I believe is … the first appearance of Michael Winslow in a film.  This looks like an outtake from a Robert Downey Sr. film.

Cheech sings “Mexican Americans”


The “soap” scene:

Chong’s “guitar solo”

Motorcycle scene

“The Weight” (from Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz”) – The Band with the Staple Singers

I have mixed feelings about Martin Scorsese’s classic “rockumentary” “The Last Waltz” which chronicles … at least at that point …  the last concert of The Band at Winterland in 1976.   But this moment from “Waltz” … for me … is the film’s finest moment and the best version of “The Weight” ever recorded in my opinion.  I’ve always felt I was supposed to like this song more than I did, given its prominence on classic rock radio and in several seminal films from “Easy Rider” to “The Big Chill.”  However, this version featured in “Waltz” is transcendent and beautiful.  I love the interplay between the Band and the Staple Singers on this version.

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975) dir. Jim Sharman, scr. Richard O’Brien and Jim Sharman

It’s Halloween time and I guess it’s now appropriate to talk about “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” the most famous “Midnight Movie” of all-time.  The term “Midnight Movie” will likely be alien to anyone born after 1975 or so, but in the days before cable TV, VCRs, DVD players, Blu-Ray, streaming, etc. … most people could only see movies in actual movie theaters.  And many theaters would host special midnight screenings of certain films that weren’t playing during the daylight or early evening hours because the special nature of such films would bring out a certain crowd of (mainly young) night owls looking for fun on a Friday and Saturday night.  These films were often ones that would not appeal to either older adults or young kids … they were aimed at teenagers and hip young adults.

“Rocky Horror” may not have been the first “Midnight Movie” blockbuster, but it was the most famous.  It was a film adaptation of a very popular British rock musical from the early 1970s called “The Rocky Horror Show.”  A Broadway adaptation in the mid-1970s flopped, but a version staged in Los Angeles at Lou Adler’s Roxy Theater was a big success.  Based on the popularity of the LA version, Adler convinced 20th Century Fox to pony up for a film adaptation.  With the exception of LA, the film flopped just as badly as the original Broadway version.  But … something curious started happening in New York City.  The film was booked into some midnight screenings in NYC after its main theatrical run and a small, but devoted group of fans started coming to screenings every week.  They became so familiar with the film that they started having fun with it … talking back to the screen, dancing in the aisles during the frequent musical numbers, and ultimately, dressing up like the characters.  Word started to spread about this phenomenon and more people started to attend screenings not just in NYC … but in every major city in North America.  Soon, 20th Century Fox had a major hit on their hands.  Over the past 40 years, the film has grossed … adjusted for inflation … the equivalent of $447 million, according to Box Office Mojo, making it the 73rd most popular film of all-time, behind “Lawrence of Arabia” and … ironically … before “Rocky.”

I finally saw “Rocky Horror” in the fall of 1985 at the Naro Expanded Cinema in Norfolk, Virginia, a terrific venue for seeing the film because unlike other theaters in the area, they let people throw rice, shoot water pistols, dance in the aisles, etc.  The only rule is that no one could throw anything at the screen, but otherwise … anything went.  The experience was a blast and I wound up going back at least 4 more times, including a very memorable Halloween screening in 1987 where … I kid you not … a black man wearing a full Ku Klux Klan outfit strutted to the front of the theater … which had everyone convulsing in hysterics.

As fun as those screenings were … it was a screening a few months later that ended the fun for me.  In retrospect, it was a stupid thing to get sour about, but it was an event that put a damper on my enjoyment for many years.  As I was shouting things at the screen with the rest of the audience, some “Rocky Horror” “fan” in the other aisle started loudly criticizing me for what I was shouting out.  I guess I was saying things that were no longer “cool” at a “Rocky Horror” screening because … well … my life didn’t revolve around the film as much as it did for this person.  And it was at this moment that I thought “I may not be cool … but I’m much cooler that this nerd” and that, my friends, was that.  I never attended another screening and it was years before I watched it again on video because I held the film and its “cult” audience in contempt for being as elitist as the people they escaped from every Friday and Saturday night to have some fun. I later realized that I was letting one fascist geek ruin a genuinely fun event and I warmed to the film again when I picked up a Special Edition DVD at Target for a ridiculously low $5.

My feelings about the film today?  It’s not a great film, by any means.  There’s many rock musicals that are much better, specifically the gender-bending rock art films “Velvet Goldmine” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”  Yet as much as “Goldmine” and “Hedwig” are better films than “Rocky Horror,” they aren’t nearly as much fun.   “Rocky Horror” is still playing midnight screenings in the US and while I don’t know what’s allowed and what’s not at such screenings these days (I can only imagine the screenings are much more conservative), I would love to take my kids to a screening because I’m sure it’ll be way more fun than any theater experience they’ve ever had.

If you’re a fan … or curious about the phenomenon … you are encouraged to check out the terrific, nearly 4-hour podcast about the film from The Projection Booth at the link below:

http://projection-booth.blogspot.com/2014/10/special-report-rocky-horror-picture-show.html

And here’s some links to some of the more memorable songs from the film:

“The Time Warp”

“Sweet Transvestite”

“Hot Patootie – Bless My Soul”

“Rock of all Ages” – Badfinger

Badfinger unleashes a loud, nasty raver with shouted vocals and pumping piano.  From the “Magic Christian Music” album (and from the Peter Sellers-starring film), this virtually unknown song (at least these days) should be in heavy rotation on classic rock radio.