“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!”

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“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.

Joe Bob Briggs commentary for the “I Spit on Your Grave” DVD/Blu-Ray

For better or worse, Roger Ebert influenced me more as a film commentator and fan than any other writer.  What I liked … and still like … about Ebert was his ability to find merit in many films other critics found disreputable, specifically those that may contain extensive sex and/or violence.  Ebert was one of the first major critics to find merit in the films of Russ Meyer at a time when Meyer was reviled as a pornographer by … pretty much everyone.  Meyer returned the favor by hiring Ebert to write the script for “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” Meyer’s big-studio X-rated debut film, along with Meyer’s future films “Supervixens” and “Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens.”

Despite this, however, Ebert could be uncharacteristically persnickety about certain controversial films that one would think he would embrace.  David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” is probably the most notorious of his slams.  But his review of the notorious 1978 rape and revenge film “I Spit on Your Grave” is almost equally famous.  Not because “I Spit on Your Grave” is a particularly good film.  But because Ebert said these things: “Attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of, my life” and also ended his review by saying “At the film’s end I walked out of the theater quickly, feeling unclean, ashamed and depressed.”

A lot of things can influence one’s opinions of a film that have nothing to do with the film … one’s mood on the day they see the film, the venue in which once sees the film, the audience the film is seen with, etc.  However, Ebert’s fevered reaction to “I Spit on Your Grave” was particularly memorable … and strange.  Mainly because Ebert gave a good review to an equally notorious rape and revenge film of the early 1970s … Wes Craven’s “Last House on the Left.”   Ebert made a point of using “Grave” as an example of the “worst of the worst” during his tirade about “slasher films” during the early 1980s.

While “I Spit on Your Grave” is not a great film, it’s not completely without merit.  Hearing Joe Bob Briggs’s commentary on the “I Spit on Your Grave” DVD/Blu-Ray is one of the greatest critical counterpoints of all-time.  Briggs goes through the film scene by scene … counteracting all accusations that this is a film made from the point of view of the vile male rapists and that the film actually follows lock-step with the arguments of some of the more radical feminist voices of the day (i.e. Andrea Dworkin).  It should be pointed out the original title of this film was called “Day of the Woman.”

Look, I’m not about to recommend “I Spit on Your Grave.”  Whatever merits the film does have do not balance out the sheer unpleasantness of much of the film.  Despite his arguments for the film’s merits, Briggs does point out the many inept decisions director Meir Zarchi makes.  “I Spit on Your Grave” is not a good film.  But it’s not worthless.  And Briggs’s wonderfully insightful … and irreverent … commentary makes this very clear.  And it’s one of the best and most entertaining DVD / Blu-Ray commentary tracks of all-time.

For the record, I’m including a link to Ebert’s review here:

http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/i-spit-on-your-grave-1980

“Sweet Talkin’ Candy Man” – The Carrie Nations (aka The Kelly Affair) from Russ Meyer’s 1970 film “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls”

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Here’s the fake Clinger Sisters … OK, not really, but this is the kick-ass female band The Carrie Nations from the Russ Meyer-directed and Roger Ebert-scripted 1970 film “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” In addition to the killer song, there’s lots of groovy editing, overacting and dialog in this scene. Oh, and needless to say, women that actually look like women. Gotta love the late 1960s … and Russ Meyer for that matter.

As much as I despise the idea of a remake of this classic film, I do have some casting ideas if one ever comes to fruition: Johnny Depp (or Robert Downey Jr.) as the flamboyantly fey Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell, Ashton Kutcher as gigolo Lance Rock, Lindsay Lohan as Kelly McNamara, Beyonce as Petronella Danforth. If you have better or different casting ideas send them to Dave’s Strange World Productions via the comments section below …

“Good Times” – The Clinger Sisters

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This is the Clinger Sisters doing a really awesome cover of the Easybeats’ “Good Times.” Just try not to frug too violently when you here this.

Re: the Clinger Sisters, I don’t know much about them, other than they were a group of Mormon sisters from Utah that used to perform with the Osmonds when they were very young, but then got the rock and roll bug and hooked up with the legendary and infamous self-proclaimed “Lord of Garbage” Kim Fowley, a scenario that sounds like the Russ Meyer-directed / Roger Ebert-scripted “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” … but probably not … who knows?

If you’re not sure who Fowley is, he was the manager and producer of Joan Jett’s and Lita Ford’s first band The Runaways. If you see “The Runaways” film, he’s the guy in short shorts and makeup throwing garbage and yelling obscenities at his teenage proteges (a brilliant performance by Michael Shannon, by the way).

“The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle” (1980) dir. Julien Temple

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“The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle” is an extremely controversial documentary about the Sex Pistols that features manager Malcolm McLaren as the lead character instead of the band. McLaren rewrites the Pistols’ history as being an elaborate hoax/scam/con job on the record industry and his running away with millions of dollars of corporate cash.

On one level, this is a very funny and engaging film. And the Sex Pistols footage is totally amazing to watch. However, as we’ve learned in subsequent years from numerous books and interviews with the surviving band members (and in Temple’s updated documentary from 2000 “The Filth and the Fury”), McLaren was not the master Machiavelli and lovable rogue he painted himself to be. Instead, McLaren was a largely incompetent, greedy, and (arguably) evil man who callously disregarded and exploited the pain and misery of those around him to get as much money as he possibly could that should have been rightfully been given to others. I still find the film entertaining, even with a huge asterix in my mind that what I’m watching is complete bollocks, to coin a phrase.

The Japanese subtitles on this trailer are appropriate, because the only way you could watch “The Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle” in America until around 1992 or so was on imported Japanese videocassettes. That’s how I first saw this film (around 1986) and was in constant rotation in my VCR for the next six years. It also features a lot of footage that never made the final film.

What’s really fascinating is that the Sex Pistols film was originally supposed to be a film called “Who Killed Bambi?” directed by American sexploitation master Russ Meyer and scripted by Roger Ebert. Ebert posted the entire script he wrote on his blog as well as his version of how his and Meyer’s involvement with the Pistols came about. A totally fascinating read.

http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/04/who_killed_bambi_-_a_screenpla.html

“Color of Night” (1994) dir. Richard Rush

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“Color of Night” has a very bad reputation. In fact, it won Worst Picture of the Year at the 1994 Razzies (it’s only win … it lost in its other 8 categories). Roger Ebert said at the time: “I was, frankly, stupefied. To call it absurd would be missing the point, since any shred of credibility was obviously the first thing thrown overboard. It’s so lurid in its melodrama and so goofy in its plotting that with just a bit more trouble, it could have been a comedy.”

I agree with everything Ebert said, except for his last assertion. I would counter that “Color of Night” IS a comedy … a gleefully wild, bats–t crazy comedy that does for erotic thrillers what the Ebert-scripted and Russ Meyer-directed “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” did for Hollywood soap operas.

If you don’t agree, consider the pedigree of its creators. Director Richard Rush made the brilliantly demented “The Stuntman” in 1980, a labor of love that took many years to film and resulted in an Academy Award nomination for Best Director that year. One of the writers was Billy Ray who later wrote and directed the superior “Shattered Glass” and “Breach.” I’m not saying that talented people can’t make a bad movie. But when you create something this completely insane, it can’t be by accident.

I won’t rehash the plot because the less you know the better. Yes, you will probably see the big plot twists coming a mile away. But I would argue that’s part of the fun. To accuse this film of containing gratuitous sex and graphic violence is missing the point. Gratuitous sex and graphic violence IS the point. It pushes its R-rating beyond the breaking point. If you’re a prude or have no sense of humor, stay away. But if you let it, “Color of Night” will take you on a crazy, surreal trip … and leave you with a big idiotic grin.

“Road House” (1989) dir. Rowdy Herrington, scr. David Lee Henry and Hilary Henkin

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There are some movies that are so terrible, they’re funny. There are other movies which are intentionally campy, but not so funny, because they’re too knowing of their own stupidity. And then there’s some movies that fit between both camps. They are movies that are over-the-top, so off-the-charts weird that you’re never quite sure if the filmmakers were in on the joke or not.

The two best examples of this are: the Russ Meyer-directed/Roger Ebert-scripted “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” … and “Road House”.

“Road House” is the most ridiculous, hysterically funny, and arguably, one of the greatest action films of all time. It’s a film that never ceases to entertain and amaze. And every time I see it, I find something new that makes me break out in an idiotic grin. Patrick Swayze was THE perfect choice to play the mulleted, King-of-All-Bouncers Dalton. I could go on and on about how brilliant this film is, but I thought I would let the movie speak for itself:

Doctor: Your file says you’ve got a degree from NYU. What in?
Dalton: Philosophy.
Doctor: Any particular discipline?
Dalton: No. Not really. Man’s search for faith. That sort of s–t.

Emmett: Calling me “sir” is like putting an elevator in an outhouse, it don’t belong. I’m Emmett.

Steve: Being called a c–ksucker isn’t personal?
Dalton: No. It’s two nouns combined to elicit a prescribed response.
Steve: What is somebody calls my mama a whore?
Dalton: Is she?

Wade Garrett: That gal’s got entirely too many brains to have an a– like that.

Wade Garrett: This place has a sign hangin’ over the urinal that says, “Don’t eat the big white mint.”

and … last … but certainly not least:

Jimmy: I used to f–k guys like you in prison.

Why the Library of Congress has not selected this as a film for the National Film Registry deserves a criminal investigation.

“Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” (1970) director Russ Meyer, writer Roger Ebert

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With the exception of Tom Green’s “Freddy Got Fingered,” this is probably the wildest, weirdest film ever released by 20th Century Fox (or any studio, for that matter).  The studio heads at Fox at the time (Richard Zanuck and David Brown) were so desperate to look hip and make money in the late 1960s, they hired sexploitation legend Russ Meyer to direct a pseudo-sequel to their trashy 1967 blockbuster “Valley of the Dolls.”  Meyer hired film critic Roger Ebert (yes, THAT Roger Ebert), the only mainstream critic who admitted to appreciating Meyer at the time, to write the screenplay.  What resulted was a masterpiece!  A twisted, f–ked-up, surreal, insane, X-rated masterpiece, but a masterpiece nonetheless.  Along with “Midnight Cowboy,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and “Last Tango in Paris,” “Beyond” was one of the few major studio X-rated films to be a box-office hit (a $50 million box-office hit, when inflation is taken into account).

This is one of those films where it’s hard to say whether it was intentionally campy, whether it was just so terrible that it’s funny, or something on the level of the meta-comedy of an Andy Kaufman or Sacha Baron Cohen.  As Ebert himself said about the tone of this film: “Meyer directed his actors with a poker face, solemnly, discussing the motivations behind each scene. Some of the actors asked me whether their dialogue wasn’t supposed to be humorous, but Meyer discussed it so seriously with them that they hesitated to risk offending him by voicing such a suggestion. The result is that ‘BVD’ has a curious tone all of its own. There have been movies in which the actors played straight knowing they were in satires, and movies which were unintentionally funny because they were so bad or camp. But the tone of ‘BVD’ comes from actors directed at right angles to the material. ‘If the actors perform as if they know they have funny lines, it won’t work,’ Meyer said, and he was right.

The attached clip is a pivotal scene, where the sinister Phil Spector-like music impresario named Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell reveals his true nature to gigolo Lance Rock (gotta love those character names).  Lance is less than sensitive in his remarks to Z-Man and pays the price.  This scene teaches an important lesson: if you’ve been tied up by some maniac wielding a sword, and said maniac decides to disrobe, the smart move is to be complimentary on the maniac’s equipment.  To be fair, though, never having been in that position, I’m only guessing as to what the right move would be.  Apparently, when Ebert revealed to Meyer during the script stage that he was making Z-Man a woman, Meyer took it in stride, saying “You can never have too many women in a picture.”

Needless to say, due to the graphic violence and simulated nudity (you’ll know what I mean when you see the clip), not safe for work or little ones.