“Movie Freak” (2016) by Owen Gleiberman

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Legendary Entertainment Weekly  …  now Variety … film critic Owen Gleiberman’s memoir “Movie Freak” is the best memoir of an arts critic I’ve ever read.  As much as I love and admire Roger Ebert’s memoir “Life Itself,” Gleiberman’s memoir blows Ebert’s excellent book out of the water.  The reason?  Gleiberman’s brutal self-analysis of his faults, not only as a human being, but his chosen profession as film critic.  Near the end of the book, Gleiberman recounts a crucial point before he married his wife, when she threatened to leave him over his indecision to one day become a father.  I’ll quote Gleiberman here:

“It dawned on me that so many giants in the world of film criticism … did not have children … What was it about film critics and children that did not mix? The obvious answer is that movies can grow into an obsession that fills that space … A person could become obsessed with any art form or with other things that were just art.  But movies had seduced me because they were the art form that seemed to be the most vivid reflection of life.  The most perfect imitation of it.  The seduction -the insane glory- of movies is that you could watch them and actually believe that they were life.

But of course, they were not … I’d always though of movies as a life force that infused me, and I hadn’t changed my mind. But now I saw that they were also something else.  At the movies, you drank in an alternative existence that did not, in fact, exist … I wasn’t just a man who loved movies. I was a man who worshiped undead images as if they were alive.  I lived under their spell.  And maybe that me undead as well.  Movies had saved my life, but now my life needed to be saved from movies.”

This is one of the best statements about what it’s like to view life as an outsider, instead of participant.  It’s safer to stand in the background and comment on life as it happens than to dive in and f–k up.  And trust me, Gleiberman painfully recounts his many f–k ups in “Movie Freak,” but his admissions are liberating instead of depressing.  This was obviously not an easy book to write, given the ferocious self-analysis, but Gleiberman pulls it off with a great sense of humor and zero self-pity. The book hit home for me in a lot of ways and will be one that I will revisit in years to come.  And if you’re fan of Gleiberman’s writing, he recounts his favorite films and past reviews in a way that’s a total blast. I loved this book so much that I read it twice to be sure that my initial reaction was accurate before I reviewed it.   I’m happy to say I loved it even more the second time.  Dave says “Check it out!”

“Hail Caesar!” (2016) scr./dir. The Coen Brothers

Just saw “Hail Caesar!” … Absolutely loved it!   If the Coen Brothers’ brilliant, but ultra-bleak 2009 film “A Serious Man” was about an absent, or indifferent God, “Hail Caesar!” concerns the opposite.  Easily their sunniest, most upbeat film …  “Caesar” could be the first Coen Brothers film that could be screened in churches.  Of course, it won’t be, because it’s the Coen Brothers and it’s highly irreverent, off-kilter, and weird.  But … it’s the first film in their 32-year filmography that indicates their hearts are not as black as they’ve always implied.  I’m a religious skeptic these days, but if there is a God, you could do a lot worse than Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix character.  Trust me, this is a VERY deep film if you analyze it, but it’s done with such a light, goofy touch, it’s incredibly entertaining and fun even if you don’t dig deeper.   There’s even some affectionate digs at Hollywood liberalism gone amok … with George Clooney front and center gleefully sending himself up.   Critics and audiences have been lukewarm about “Caesar,” but you need to remember that “The Big Lebowski” had the same reaction when it first came out and is now one of the Coen’s most beloved films.  Mark my words, “Caesar” is one for the ages.

“F–k Buddies” (2015) scr./dir. Nate Wilson

Can two people have a physically intimate relationship and just “be friends”?  This is a situation multiple “friends” have attempted over time with each other, often with disastrous results.  I’m sure there’s a handful of these relationships where both parties feel mutually satisfied with the arrangement and want nothing more than casual sex from each other. But most of the time, these “friendships” are doomed because one party always likes their friend more than the other one does.   If you’ve ever been in an arrangement like this that you feel was/is successful, can you say with all certainty the other party didn’t want something more?

This premise has been played out endlessly in romantic comedies, but Nate Wilson’s short film “F–k Buddies” may be the first film to explore this notion in the genre of horror.  Imagine if David Cronenberg or David Lynch were hired to direct “No Strings Attached” or “Friends with Benefits” and they burned the scripts prior to shooting.

“F–k Buddies” is not what I’d call pornographic, but it’s very explicit and extremely disturbing.  To say this film is not safe for work is an understatement.  But I seriously love Wilson’s original take on this premise.  “F–k Buddies” has gotten a lot of attention on the festival circuit recently and I’m afraid some Hollywood studio will produce a mega-budget “remake” which will not only add useless subplots to pad out the running time to feature-length, but will tone down the more disturbing elements to get a commercially viable “R” … or God forbid … “PG-13” rating.

If you’re an aspiring filmmaker looking to cut their creative teeth making a short film, “F–k Buddies” is a textbook example on how to execute an idea brilliantly in just 19 minutes.  The acting by Sharon Belle and Alex Plouffe as the leads is terrific.

The entire film can be watched at the link / clip above.

Thanks to the Onion’s A.V. Club for alerting me to this film.

“Raising Arizona” (1987) dir./ scr. The Coen Brothers

I first became aware of the Coen Brothers when their debut film “Blood Simple” was making the rounds and creating a buzz.  I was 15 at the time and saw it at the Circle 6 in Norfolk, VA during the (then) theatrical no-man’s land between February and May of 1985.  These were the days when if you looked vaguely 17 years old, they would sell you a ticket … or not.  To be fair, even from the age of 13, I was never refused a ticket for an R-rated film.  At the time, I thought it was because I looked super-old.  In reality, I don’t think the theaters gave a s–t.  Seriously, I was able to buy a ticket for “9 1/2 Weeks” at the same theater during the same period and no one even remotely asked me if I was of age.   But I digress …

Anyway, I didn’t think much of “Blood Simple” back then.  It was interesting and weird for sure, but I left the theater thinking “Eh …”  In subsequent years, I’ve rewatched “Bood Simple” and think it’s amazing, but as a 15-year old, it didn’t do much for me.  Neither did “9 1/2 Weeks” for that matter.  But by that point, I had already seen “Deep Throat” uncut, along with several porn classics on the Playboy Channel, which … while heavily edited … were still much more explicit than the antics in the allegedly “saucy” “9 1/2 Weeks.”  But again, I digress …

Cut to the Spring of 1987.  I’m listening to NPR (the station my Mom listened to back in the day before she discovered Rush Limbaugh … another sad digression … ARRGH!) and the NPR commentators are discussing this amazingly weird film “Raising Arizona.”  I’m intrigued, but not making the connection it’s by the same people who made “Blood Simple.”  When I visited my Dad in the Washington D.C. area for Spring Break, “Raising Arizona” was the film I chose to see.  That was a great visit, because I also discovered Tower Records near George Washington University and picked up the following albums: “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” “For Your Pleasure” by Roxy Music, “London Calling” by the Clash, and “The Best of Elvis Costello” during the same visit, which all changed my life in significant ways.

Anyway, back to “Raising Arizona.”  My thoughts at the time?  It was a fantastically weird aberration / revelation along the lines of Alex Cox’s “Repo Man,” David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” and Jonathan Demme’s “Something Wild.”  It was a film that … on the surface … seemed to follow traditional movie conventions, but went off the rails in several key areas.  On one level, it was one of many Yuppie “we’re having a baby” films that were popular at the time (“Baby Boom,” “She’s Having a Baby”). But it also injected some really dark 1940s-era film noir elements (kidnapping, escaped convicts) that the filmmakers kept just dark enough to keep it interesting, but always pulled back at crucial moments before the film became truly disturbing. It many ways, it was simultaneously the perfect and most perverse major studio debut for resoundingly indie filmmakers.

Watching it now, “Raising Arizona” seems simultaneously like the most perverse and perfect major studio debut for decidedly indie filmmakers.  It rides the line between conventional comedy and truly twisted cinema better than most allegedly “edgy” studio films.  And the fact that it does all of this within the confines of a then PG-13 rating seems even more bizarre. In many ways, you can see elements of the Coen Brothers’ future masterpieces, from “Fargo” to “No Country for Old Men” here.  And oddly, unlike most Coen Brothers films, “Raising Arizona” manages to eke out a happy ending, though not in the ways you would normally expect.  The happy ending is a dream.  And while it may be a dream, unlike the endings of “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy” where the happy endings may actually be the delusions of the twisted anti-heroes, the dream ending in “Raising Arizona” seems plausible.  And that’s one of the reasons this is arguably the most beloved of the Coen Brothers’ films.

Dave’s 5 Films He Would Choose if He Were Asked by Robert Osborne to Program a Selection on Turner Classic Movies

The scenario … You have been selected by Robert Osborne at Turner Classic Movies to program 5 movies and introduce your selections before they begin on TCM. You could obviously choose your 5 favorite films of all-time. Or … you could see this as an opportunity to showcase 5 favorite films that not many people know about but should. I am providing my 5 choices below. Again, while they rank among my favorite films, they are not necessarily my all-time 5 favorite movies. They’re just the ones that people need to know more about. Feel free to discuss, debate … or even better … present your 5 in the comments section. I’m curious to hear what you have to say.

1. “Nobody’s Fool” (1994) dir. Robert Benton
My favorite film of 1994 (aside from “Ed Wood” and “Pulp Fiction”), based on Pulitzer Prize winning author Richard Russo’s 1993 novel. Paul Newman plays Donald Sullivan, a sometime-construction worker who has a lifetime of mistakes and screw-ups in his history. When his son and grandson come back into his life, he has a chance at redemption. It’s a movie I always put on when I’m in a foul or depressed mood, because all of the characters (with one or two exceptions) are fundamentally decent people, deeply flawed as they are. This is one of Newman’s five best performances and the supporting cast, from Bruce Willis to Melanie Griffith to Jessica Tandy to even Philip Seymour Hoffman in an early role, are terrific.

I loved this movie when I saw it in January of 1995, but “Nobody’s Fool” has gained special resonance for me over the years, because I wound up living in the village where this movie took place (renamed North Bath for the film) for 8 years. I didn’t even realize this until a year after I moved there, but everything about the look of this film and town positively nails the quirky, but memorable upstate NY place I once called home.

2. “Auto Focus” (2002) dir. Paul Schrader

One of the funniest and creepiest movies of the 2000s is Paul Schrader’s corrosive biopic of the late “Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane. Crane was what we would now describe as a “sex addict,” whose obsession and weird friendship with a man who shared that lifestyle with him (as the film alleges) ultimately killed Crane. What’s interesting about “Auto Focus” is how director Schrader so accurately depicts a man with absolutely zero self-awareness. As Schrader put it in a terrific interview with Uju Asika on Salon.com when the movie was released: “… when I’ve dealt with characters like this before, these existential loners, they tend to be introspective. They don’t get it, but they’re trying to figure out how to get it. The interesting thing to me about Crane was that he was not only clueless, he was clueless about being clueless. And I think his greatest flaw wasn’t sex, it was selfishness. Hence the title. I don’t think he understood or appreciated how his actions affected other people. It was just sort of blithe egoism. So the challenge then was to try to make a film about a superficial character that wasn’t a superficial film.” He also described Crane and his partner-in-crime John Carpenter: “You take these kind of Rat Pack guys who have to trade in their narrow ties for beads and bell bottoms in order to score chicks. But of course they remain the same sexist jerks they always were. It’s a fascinating period in American male sexual identity.” In my opinion, Schrader’s best film as a director, slightly edging out 1978’s “Blue Collar” and 1979’s “Hardcore.”

3. “The Falcon and the Snowman” (1985) dir. John Schlesinger

One of my favorite films from the 1980s (and one of the most sadly forgotten/neglected) is John Schlesinger’s nail-biting account of two young American friends during the 1970s (one an idealistic communications worker, the other a drug dealer) who decide to sell information to the KGB. Based on the true story about Christopher Boyce and Daulton Lee’s descent into treason, it’s extremely well-acted, well-written, well-directed. This is the kind of film that would have won multiple Oscars during the 1970s, but was dumped into theaters January 1985, the traditional no-man’s land for films studios are looking to give a token release to before writing them off as losses on their annual reports. It’s a real shame, because this deserved much better. Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn are incredible in this film as Boyce and Lee.

4. “Hopscotch” (1980) dir. Ronald Neame

Is there any cooler actor than Walter Matthau? OK, maybe there a few that are cooler … or maybe several. Who cares, allright? As one gets older, one begins to appreciate the laconic, laid-back, sardonic charm of the ultimate intelligent curmudgeon. It’s hard to pick a favorite Matthau film, but “Hopscotch” is my favorite. This is completely fun from start to finish, and if you’re a fan of “Fletch,” “Hopscotch” is one of the best smart-ass dialogue films of all time. Many people thought this was an odd choice for The Criterion Collection, but I don’t. It’s been a favorite of mine ever since my Mom took me to see it when I was 10, which was especially cool due its R-rating and multiple “F-bombs” throughout.

5. “Last Night at the Alamo” (1984) dir. Eagle Pennell

Before “Eastbound and Down” and the rest of Jody Hill’s brilliantly dark and funny oeuvre of delusional losers, there was Eagle Pennell’s funny and sad “Last Night at the Alamo.” Written by Kim Henkel, the man who wrote the original screenplay for “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and one of the best truly indie movies of all time, “Last Night at the Alamo” tells the tale of the Alamo (a Houston dive bar) last night in business. The regulars are an interesting bunch: William (aka Ichabod) is a hot-headed, but dim young man in his early 20s; Claude is a man whose blue collar world is threatened when his wife insists they move the suburbs and she subsequently throws him out for drinking too much; and then there’s Cowboy, the legendary BMOC at the bar, who has a big plan to save the bar … or go to Hollywood to become a cowboy actor. There’s other regulars too, as well as assorted bartenders, girlfriends, wives, and former lovers, who fade in and out of the scenery, as the night continues.

The Alamo’s closing represents more than the closing of their favorite watering hole. This is a place where all the men go to be big shots after difficult days on the job or in their lives. It’s obvious the men feel small outside the Alamo, because they strut around and pathetically act like badasses within its confines. The Alamo’s closing means that these men will now be reduced the lives they lead … with their favorite escape hatch closing behind them.

The film has some serious moments, but it’s also hysterically and profanely funny. One of the best scenes in the film is the very first one, where William drives to the Alamo after work with his girlfriend and he rants and screams about everything from having to borrow an undesirable vehicle because his regular ride needs repair to his girlfriend complaining about his cursing and drinking, etc. If the opening scene doesn’t grab you, the rest of the film won’t.

If you’re at all a fan of Jody Hill or Danny McBride, “Last Night at the Alamo” is an absolute must-see.