[IN THE TRENCHES] The End of the Road

The End of the Road
Fading out?

Writing is hard. Making a living writing, is almost impossible.

So, have you imagined a time when you’d stop? Stop writing. Stop trying to get discovered. Stop trying to get hired, produced, or published.

Have you imagined a scenario where you’d actually move on?

Some people even start their pursuit with a potential end in mind. “If I haven’t sold something by 40, I’m calling it quits!”

Is it 40 for you? 50? 60?

The entertainment industry is rough. Crazy competitive. Even if you’re an amazing writer, it still doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to find a place and thrive. It helps, of course, but it’s no guarantee.

When I first graduated from film school, I moved across the country to L.A. to try and make it in the biz as a screenwriter. A lot of fellow alumni did the same.

Surrender Dorothy
Sadly, the industry is more Wicked Witch than Glinda.

A lot of them didn’t last.

Some left after only a few years. Some took a decade or so before switching careers. One of my friends came for a couple of years, then left, then came back again, and then finally left for good.

My understanding is that he’s currently living a happy life in the Pacific Northwest, far away from the madness. Good for him.

It’s hard to keep going when you’re not getting the response you’re looking for. Even if you’ve been a working screenwriter for years, sometimes things slow to a standstill. Contacts retire, story editors have more writers than they have assignments, burnout sets in.

You can really being to wonder.

Am I done? Is this the end? Do I actually want this to be the end?

Obviously it’s a personal choice. There’s no right or wrong way to chart your course.

So, if you think that going back to school to become a therapist, or getting your real estate license, or opening a coffee shop is the way to go… Then that’s the way to go.

Never give up. Never surrender.
Never give up. Unless you want to, of course. Do you.

We only get one life (as I understand things so far). Do what works. What pays the bills. Ideally, what makes you happy.

So if that means continuing to channel your creativity into words, and stories, and scripts, despite a current lack of “success,” then age and bank accounts be damned.

Toni Morrison was 40 when she had her first novel published. Courtney Hunt‘s screenwriting debut earned her an Oscar nomination at 44. Angela’s Ashes was published when Frank McCourt was 66.

Not that these are common scenarios, of course, but it’s proof of what can be done at almost any age.

Ultimately we should all do what’s best for us.

For me, I don’t think I’ll ever be done trying to make things happen with my writing. I’m proud of what I’ve done so far, but I’m also still excited for all the things I’m going to do. As long as I’m living, I think I’ll continue striving to do more, better, bigger.

At least until I don’t.

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[ETCETERA] Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon… and Me

At this point, I’d say that we’ve pretty much all heard of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The idea being that almost every actor can be connected to Kevin Bacon via his co-stars in six steps or less. Despite an extremely limited acting resume, even I can pull this off.

In fact, according to The Oracle of Bacon website, I have a Bacon number of three. Regardless, I don’t really count those particular connections as they start with me as a voice in an animated project. Not a solid foundation.

Instead, I’ve upped the degree of difficulty slightly, by only using live-action movies and connected actors who actually shared screen-time.

The end result is my Bacon number of five…

Kevin Bacon and Tom Cruise in "A Few Good Men"
Kevin Bacon and Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men”
Tom Cruise and Frank Whaley in "Born on the Fourth of July"
Tom Cruise and Frank Whaley in “Born on the Fourth of July”
Frank Whaley and John Travolta in "Pulp Fiction"
Frank Whaley and John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction”
John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in "Grease"
John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in “Grease”
Olivia Newton-John and Michael Beck in "Xanadu"
Olivia Newton-John and Michael Beck in “Xanadu”
Michael Beck and James Hereth in "Jungle Book: Lost Treasure"
Michael Beck and James Hereth in “Jungle Book: Lost Treasure”

I assume they’ll lead with this in my obituary one day. Have a Happy New Year.

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[THREE CENTS] Thanks for “Nothing”

Woodstock and Snoopy split a Thanksgiving meal.
Woodstock being happy he isn’t a turkey

Pursuing a career as a working screenwriter is challenging at best. And maintaining an existing one is no walk in the park either. More like a walk through broken glass (while also eating it).

There can be days – years even – when it seems like my professional writing is on life support.

At this point I’m all too aware of what burnout feels like.

So how do you find hope or optimism in your writing journey during the dark days? How do you feel thankful when you’re pretty damn sure there’s nothing to be thankful for?

Back in the day, before he was creepy (other than the standard self-help-guru hucksterism weirdness), Tony Robbins had an exercise in his Personal Power tape series that addressed this.

Stack of Blowback Graphic Novels
Looks good vertically and horizontally

(yes, after enthusiastic recommendations from my roommates at the time, I actually ordered a set of tapes off late night television and found them about 80% helpful and only 20% nonsense).

In this exercise, Robbins instructed the listener to look around the room they were in and find and remember everything that was brown. Then he asked us to close our eyes and name everything in the room that was red (a tricky redirect as you might imagine).

After that, he had listeners open their eyes and actively look for everything red. Naturally, this time around, significantly more red objects were found.

The idea being that you tend to only see the things you’re looking for, leaving you blind to the things outside that adopted point of view.

Whatever you focus on is what you’ll see.

2019 Award Screeners
The annual swag pile. Still growing…

So that’s the essence here, really. If you only dwell on the things that make you miserable, that’s all you’re pretty much going to think is there.

On the other hand, if you devote some time and energy to direct your attention to the more positive things in your life – and career – you’ll tend to find them.

The seasonal point, of course, is to stop focusing on the brown parts of your career, and focus on the red instead. Metaphorically speaking.

What are you thankful for this year, screenwriting warriors? Here’s my list (with another month still to come)…

  • Did a small “test run” of Rhonda and my graphic novel, Blowback, while searching for a publisher Looks awesome (we even sold a few).
  • Got a script read by a production company thanks to the WGA submission portal (created as a result of their Agency Campaign). It ended up not being a fit for their mandate, but they liked the writing and it generated a new industry relationship.

So while – no – I didn’t get any award nominations myself, or sell a million dollar spec, I still had things to be upbeat about. And today, that’s what I’ll focus on.

Now please pass the stuffing.

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[ETCETERA] The Wilhelm Scream

Wilhelm Scream in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977).
Wilhelm, rebooted

Most audiences are onto the fact that much of the sound they hear in movies and television isn’t made on set while the cameras are rolling.

The gunshot wasn’t actually recorded live. The song at the High School dance wasn’t coming through the on-screen speakers. Even something as straightforward as the footsteps of people walking down a hallway wasn’t likely captured at the actors’ feet.

Instead, most sounds are carefully selected from a sound effects library or recorded on a foley stage and then painstakingly placed by a SFX Editor during post production.

This is the world of make-believe, after all.

The sonic smoke and mirrors are even more prevalent in animation, where every bit of audio you hear, from dialogue to fist fights, to birds chirping in the distance is chosen and assembled on an edit system or audio software timeline.

The first Wilhelm Scream in Distant Drums (1951)
1951’s “Distant Drums.” Before Wilhelm was Wilhelm.

With that in mind, the question is: can a stock sound effect become legendary?

It can. It has.

Through the decades, a particular sound effect – a scream, to be specific – has come to find its way into an endless series of films.

This effect, known as The Wilhelm Scream, has been in even more shows and movies than Michael Caine!

Hard to believe.

According to Wikipedia, The Wilhelm Scream first appeared in the 1951 movie, Distant Drums. Oddly enough, it wasn’t screamed by the character Wilhelm until the Western, The Charge at Feather River, a couple of years later.

Life is complicated.

From there, Wilhelm’s scream has gone on to show up in over 425 more productions, from Reservoir Dogs to Toy Story to Terminator: Dark Fate.

Although a viable (though perhaps melodramatic) sound effect, its popularity is not quite by happenstance. At least, not at this point.

The first Wilhelm Scream by Wilhelm himself in The Charge at Feather River (1953).
An arrow to the thigh. A small price for fame, Wilhelm.

Iconic sound designer, Ben Burtt, first used it in the original Star Wars, and went on to popularize it throughout his career.

In short, it’s now become a bit of an “inside joke” among filmmakers. Though today, with everyone knowing the ins and outs of all things pop culture, it’s not nearly the secret it once was.

One of the things about this that fascinates me most, is that the actor behind this cinematic gem – reportedly Sheb Wooley – is still “alive” and well and performing in new movies all the time, despite being dead since 2003.

That’s no mean feat.

In short, I raise a glass to the immortal Wilhelm. Few have experienced more frequent and varied suffering on the silver screen merely for our entertainment.

If you weren’t already, be sure to keep an ear out and see if you can find it in the next movie you watch. Granted, if it’s a story about collecting butterflies, it’s probably not going to pop up. But anything a with a little action, and you’re likely to strike gold.

Enjoy!

It should really get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

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[IN THE TRENCHES] That First Gig

That Familiar Flying Logo

I think the primary question for most impending college graduates is: What now?

That was in the forefront of my mind as a senior in the film and television department at NYU.

I had a couple of thoughts.

There was a student I knew whose aunt coordinated parking for film shoots in the New York area. Maybe I’d start my professional career as a parking P.A. A few of my friends had done it over the previous summer break and ended up on Goodfellas. Not too shabby.

I’d also acted in a PSA during high school for a small production company on Long Island, and thought I might be able to get a job there. Maybe an internship. Something industry-related until I could sell my million dollar spec.

The Vault of Weird Goodness

Thankfully, there were then (and still are today) lots of entry-level industry positions to be had if you’re already in a city with media and entertainment companies.

Places like New York and Los Angeles are the obvious epicenters. But there are plenty of others throughout the country, to varying degrees. You just have to do some research on what’s in your particular area (or the area you’re going to. Particularly).

The types of industry jobs available just out of school are a bit of a smorgasbord as well, as my NYU peers illustrated quite nicely.

One friend started out as an assistant at a production company. Another friend, a camera operator on low-budget features. Still another started by doing script coverage for a producer. Beyond that there are P.A.s, personal assistants, receptionists, and coordinators, to name a few more. None of those jobs are going to get you a Tesla right out of the gate, but you’ve gotta start somewhere.

Before I pursued any of the local jobs I was thinking of, I got an offer from my friend, Tim, who had left school after the previous semester. He was in Los Angeles, working in development at a company called Franklin/Waterman Entertainment and there was a job to be had on one of their shows.

Back in the day, this was High Tech. Maybe Medium Tech.

(Note to everyone in every industry: Your friends are your network, and you are theirs).

The show was Night Flight, a weekly two-hour block of music videos, film shorts, and other odd odds and ends. It had originally been an overnight block on the USA Network, but this version aired nationally in late-night syndication.

My job was as a Segment Producer, which sounds mighty highfalutin for a kid fresh from college. What it really meant, though, was that I wasn’t on salary. Instead, it was my job to conceive of and pitch segments. With the approved ones, it would be up to me to edit them for airing on the show. Then I got to invoice.

Most of my segments were cobbled together from music videos, electronic press kits, public domain movies, and assorted other video weirdness from the show’s vast tape library.

My favorite piece was a dance montage called Hip Hop ‘Til Ya Drop, set to (and including) MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This, which was painstakingly stitched together to the beat from more than 25 music videos on a linear editing system. Please hold your applause until the end…

Night Flight graphics also Medium Tech.

When Night Flight finally invested in a professional grade Hi8 camera, I got to shoot bumpers, band interviews (The Sisters of Mercy, The Godfathers), and eventually even a short “film” of my own for the show (to be entailed in a future post).

In short, it was a great start for me – A reason to move to L.A., a landing place with an “endorsement, ” and a gig on a “brand name” series.

Granted, it’s been a roller coaster ever since, but it was a welcome entry point

The main thing to remember, is that you shouldn’t think of your first job as a life-and-death decision that will define the rest of your career. Not that you should take just anything. But primarily, it’s a place to start working, develop your network, and then figure out the best path to your ultimate goal.

Mine is to be cartoonishly wealthy and get anything I dream of produced.

I’m still working on it.

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[SPOTLIGHT] Stinkier & Dirtier

The Stinky & Dirty show Title Card
Stinky (left) & Dirty (right)

If you thought this post was going be R rated, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. Instead, it will be very much a G, since it’s about the preschool series, The Stinky & Dirty Show.

This happens to actually be my third post about this pair of animated trucks (there was this one, and that was followed up by this one). But it’s relevant once more, since August 23rd marked the latest drop of episodes on Amazon Prime.

Tom Kenny
Not Andy Dick.

The two episodes I wrote with Rhonda Smiley in this batch feature another pair of notable performers (I know it really shouldn’t matter, but I do love writing for performers of note).

In “Monster Breakthrough,” Tom Kenny (SpongeBob SquarePants, 3 Below: Tales of Arcadia) plays the fun-loving, but easily-frightened, Monster Truck.

In “A Case of the Sputters,” Andy Richter (Conan, Madagascar) voices the heroic Fire Engine, Brave.

The truth is, in addition to the thrill of having performers I admire actually speaking dialogue I’ve written, it’s helpful in self-promotion. While it might feel a little weird… maybe vain… probably narcissistic… self-promotion has become an essential part of the modern writer’s toolbox.

Andy Richter
Not an actual fire truck

Don’t shy away from it, if possible. Highlight your work, your network, and especially any recognizable names involved.

Employers and fans alike should be able to easily find these things online. For prospective employers, the more impressive things they see, the more appealing a candidate you become (good writing is the primary attribute, of course, but everything helps. Everything. It’s a competitive field).

Speaking of things to promote, I also just found out that Stinky & Dirty won a 2018 Parents’ Choice Gold Award from the Parents’ Choice Foundation.

“Good lessons about perseverance pervade the series. Stinky and Dirty also highlight the fact that communication is important and that solving problems successfully can be very rewarding.”

Very rewarding indeed. I guess they’re doing something right. I’m glad I get to play a small part.

…and then talk about it online.

The Stinky & Dirty Show Credit Block
The receipts

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[ETCETERA] The Dog Days of Spring

I didn’t write a post last month and was on the verge of missing my June deadline too.

It’s so easy to get buried by life sometimes.

For me it was a flurry of little things. Not all of them negative, but still… Enough of them and it can really take a toll on your schedule.

There was the push to get a publisher for Blowback, my day-job fluctuation, possible interest in a script, a friend’s injury, the death of a refrigerator, surgery on my dog’s paw, a Sisyphean attempt to clean the garage, and – of course – a trip to Batuu.

Time was definitely not on my side.

So this month, instead of my usual witty (yes, witty) musings, I give you a picture of my dog, Jojo, after he came home from his aforementioned procedure.

(He’s still rehabbing now, but feeling much better, thanks)

Sometimes life can get away from you. The dog days of spring as illustrated by Westie and Cairn Mix Terrier, Jojo.
An adorably dazed Jojo (photo courtesy of his mommy, Rhonda Smiley)

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Tortured Running Analogies

James Hereth - 2019 Los Angeles Marathon
This photo is also a screenwriting analogy

As the oft-repeated saying goes, a career is a Marathon, not a sprint.

But really, pretty much everything – other than a sprint – isn’t a sprint.

In the same vein, the most obvious marathon is an actual 26.2 mile marathon itself, no analogy needed.

Well, 20 years after my previous actual marathon, I once again “ran” (read: traveled by foot) the Los Angeles Marathon at the end of last month.

It may take another 20 years to recover, but I did cross the finish line under my own power. It was hard. It was stressful. It was long. But more than anything, determination and perseverance are what got me through.

Similarly, I’ve been running my screenwriting career marathon for quite a few years now. As with the literal version, determination and perseverance are the primary forces getting me through.

So lets milk these metaphors dry.

To have a chance of building your own screenwriting career, you need to push past the exhaustion of working a day job while still putting in the hours for your creative work. Writers have to write.

You have to block out the pain of dry spells when paying gigs are nowhere to be be found. Be prepared when the opportunities arise.

You must embrace every bit of encouragement from the sidelines to soldier on in the face of impossible odds. No kind word is too insignificant, no motivation too small.

You need to lance the blisters of rejection to… er… well…

Ah, hell, you get the idea.

If you just keep putting one metaphorical foot in front of the other, you’ll eventually get to the metaphorical finish line.

Which, in this analogy, is success. Start stretching.

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[SPOTLIGHT] The (Award Winning) Stinky & Dirty Show

Onscreen credits never get old

March 22nd marked the drop of the latest episodes of Amazon Prime’s Emmy-Nominated, The Stinky & Dirty Show.

Now, I’ve talked about this show a bit before, so what makes this drop so special?

Simple: Me!

Well, me and Rhonda Smiley, to be more specific.

This particular release includes “The Neverending Race,” which is the first of three episodes Rhonda and I wrote for the series.

Although it’s always great to get an assignment for a show, it’s even cooler when you find out that the words you type will ultimately come out of the mouths of some amazing actors. “Name-brands,” even!

Featured performers in our episode include Joan Cusack (Shameless, Toy Story 2, 3, & 4) as Red, and Academy Award Winner, Whoopi Goldberg (Ghost, Sister Act) as Meg.

Stinky. Red. Dirty.

The moment we got the offer from longtime friend, Guy Toubes (Executive Producer on the show), we jumped at the opportunity. To begin with, we never turn down legitimate writing work. We’re not crazy (not that kind of crazy, anyway). But beyond that, it was our first chance to work on a show produced specifically for a streaming service.

The future is now, yo.

Unlike a lot of freelance writing work, where pitches and notes are primarily done via email, Stinky & Dirty also involved a meeting with real human beings in a brick and mortar structure known as an “office.”

This particular office was a conference room at Amazon Studios in Santa Monica. A word about Amazon Studios. Several, actually. They don’t kid around over there with security. It felt somewhat reminiscent of trying to break into – or perhaps out of – a high-security military facility in a sci-fi movie.

It’s all a bit of a blur at this point, but I think it might’ve involved a DNA sample, retina scan… possibly a body cavity search. On the other hand, we got breakfast. So that’s a net positive.

Once safely inside, we broke the story with Guy and Story Editor, Rick Suvalle, along with the help of assistant (and writer) Zac. Also, a whiteboard.

As a group, coming up with ideas on the spot allows you to feed off all the creative minds in the room. You can build on each other’s pitches, finding the best solutions to problems that crop up. It’s also kinda fun.

On top of all that, they even paid us for it. Good times.

So if you’ve got any preschool kids who love them some talking trucks, you know where to turn… The Stinky & Dirty Show!

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[THREE CENTS] The 10 Day Movie Challenge

The Elmwood in Queens – My first neighborhood theater

So if you have the internet, you’ve probably seen this “challenge” over the past few months (years?) on Facebook. Maybe participated yourself.

I was twice “nominated” (thanks Charlie Unger and Tim Bogart), but hadn’t taken the bait. Yet. The task is overwhelming.

The directive itself varies a bit, but here’s the couple I was invited to:

________________________________

Post an image from 10 favorite movies with no explanation and pin the challenge on another person each day.

________________________________

10 films that made an impact on you the first time you saw them and are still on your watch list, even if only now and then. Post the poster, no need to explain and nominate a person each day to do the same.

________________________________

Let’s get this out the way right up front… I’m not doing that. I can’t do that. When you’ve been around for a few decades, and seen more than your share of movies, I don’t know how the hell you could possibly whittle down your favorites to a mere ten.

Sorry, Marie Kondo. A lot more than that have sparked joy.

Instead, I’ll be doing multiples of ten. Along with titles. And a bit of explanation. Clearly I’m not great at following rules.

So maybe grab something to eat. A coffee. Two. I’ve tried to at least minimize the volume by doing some bundling on theme. You’ll see.

(It’ll be pretty clear my formative years were in the 80’s, though I assume the lists for any movie fan will primarily reflect the same for them)

Here we go…

The odds of being at the top are excellent

The first title that pops into my head is always STAR WARS. This will forever be at the top of the list. I was just a kid when it came out, and I couldn’t have loved it more.

It was different than the more “serious” science fiction around at the time, like Star Trek and Space: 1999.

Star Wars was action. Adventure. Laser battles and dog fights. The whole magilla. I group it with its immediate successors, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI. Yes, even Return of the Jedi.

ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE is my favorite over-the-top comedy. Jim Carrey’s relentless commitment to his character was pure gold. Similar, in regards to being relentlessly over-the-top, is AIRPLANE! A movie unlike any I’d seen before. Silly, parodyic, absurdist. Fantastic.

Everybody relax, I’m here

BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA was another revelation. Action, fantasy, and comedy, all wrapped around the bravado performance of Kurt Russell as a guy who just wanted his truck back. To this, I’ll add what I believe is its spiritual sibling – THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI: ACROSS THE EIGHTH DIMENSION. Imminently quotable, imminently weird, and a sort of inside secret with me and my friends. At least until it grew into a cult classic.

For my John Belushi picks, ANIMAL HOUSE definitely takes the giant rolling cake, with a great ensemble and moments galore. Meanwhile, THE BLUES BROTHERS brings along a series of legendary musical cameos and an awesome soundtrack.

The horror never looked so good

War is hell, of course, but it makes a compelling viewing experience.

The stylistic APOCALYPSE NOW stands above the rest, but a string of others, including FULL METAL JACKET, PLATOON, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and SCHINDLER’S LIST, all brought a unique perspective of life under fire.

As a big fan of Eddie Murphy on SNL, it was a thrill when he burst onto the film scene with an early string of instant classics, like 48 HRS., TRADING PLACES, and the best of his best, BEVERLY HILLS COP.

And then there’s the wonderful John Hughes. I think I had a religious experience at THE BREAKFAST CLUB, but SIXTEEN CANDLES, and FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF are also absolute standouts. “Never had one lesson!”

This feels right, right?

I didn’t really discover Albert Brooks until BROADCAST NEWS, but he was the best part of an already amazing movie. Despite wanting him be with Holly Hunter at the end, I knew it probably wasn’t going to happen.

Thankfully, I got to see him finally get the girl in DEFENDING YOUR LIFE just a few years later. Too bad they were both already dead.

The reaction to the WHEN HARRY MET SALLY… fake orgasm scene was a bit overblown, but it still didn’t detract from the great dialogue and chemistry between Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan.

In the Billy Crystal non-romantic comedy category, CITY SLICKERS will definitely help you find your smile. As I think about it, though, I saw an early test screening, so I’m not even sure what the final product looked like…

Fight the power, with extra pepperoni

I saw DO THE RIGHT THING in Times Square while I was at college, and the entire experience was just electric.

MO’ BETTER BLUES was where my friend, Mike, had his religious experience, but I was pretty enthralled as well.

My favorite Bill Murry is Peter Venkman Bill Murray in GHOSTBUSTERS. True, he’s a bit of a dick, but in a charming, funny way. And what an ensemble alongside him. Close runner ups here are GROUNDHOG DAY and STRIPES (where I first witnessed the deft Ramis/Murray rapport).

Launching into outer space again, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY gave us a perfect comedy/action/science fiction blockbuster. Other sci-fi faves include the much-maligned ARMAGEDDON, along with the much revered ALIENS and STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN.

Be wary of a pretty face

In the adventure department, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was an entirely unique experience for me (despite being an homage to old serials), driven by the ever-charismatic Harrison Ford. And a whip. Also, some snakes.

On a much more intense, bleak, and violent front was the post-apocalyptic THE ROAD WARRIOR. Back then it wasn’t controversial to be mad for Max.

DIE HARD was so good, it spawned its very own action sub-genre, and brought Moonlighting’s David Addison to the big screen in a big way. Odd couple cops were at their peak in LETHAL WEAPON and LETHAL WEAPON 2 (despite Mel Gibson’s glaring character flaws subsequently tarnishing a lot of the shine).

I became a rock and roll vampire myself after watching the THE LOST BOYS, while the same year’s ROBOCOP swirled together a dizzying concoction of violence, satire, and action in New Detroit.

The Litmus Configur-uration

The very same month in 1988 gave us MIDNIGHT RUN and A FISH CALLED WANDA.

The comedy chemistry between Charles Grodin and Robert DeNiro was off the charts (Travis Bickle, who knew?!). And with it came an abundance of quotable dialogue and some of the best supporting characters around.

Meanwhile, Wanda gave us Kevin Kline’s comic tour-de-force, and a reunion of my favorite Pythons, Cleese and Palin.

Speaking of which, MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL was a thrilling find for me in mid-high school and served as an introduction to the much wider Python world beyond. TIME BANDITS also brought together a trio of Pythons to tell the time-travelling tale of a marauding group of rogue tree designers hunted by the brilliantly hilarious David Warner.

Back before Michael Keaton became drawn to dramas, his fearless comedy parts were the thrill, with MR. MOM and the darker NIGHT SHIFT my personal top two. Tim Burton’s BATMAN may have set him on the track to more serious fare, but he remains my favorite dark knight.

Power(fully witty) couple

Turning Shakespeare from a chore to a draw was MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, as Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson executed a sparkling comic duel.

ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD is more Shakespeare-adjacent, but its crackling dialogue and overall weirdness won me right over.

I found the joys of the classic road picture in both THE MUPPET MOVIE and PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES. The Muppets proved that Jim Henson and company could imbue a piece of felt with a heart and soul, while Planes, Trains showed John Hughes had what it took to make a “grown-up” movie every bit as great as his high school flicks.

In the indie category, PULP FICTION stands head and shoulders (and maybe even a clavicle or two) above the rest. Crazy, time-shifting, violent, and funny. DOWN BY LAW was an unexpected charmer. Small, offbeat, and wonderful.

ROXANNE is probably most people’s favorite Steve Martin flick. Mine as well, but there was something special about the little taste of magic in L.A. STORY. Living in Southern California at the time may have intensified my connection, but it still comes in a close second. Oh, and THE JERK, of course. Can’t forget The Jerk.

You f**k my wife?

I don’t think a lot of people have seen SLAM DANCE, but it really struck me. Beautiful photography. Wonderfully odd characters and darkly comedic moments. Not to mention an epic performance by Tom Hulce playing a reckless cartoonist accused of murder. What’s not to love?

Other thrillers to love are THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and SE7EN.

Speaking of comic actors who got serious (see Keaton, Michael, above), the John Cusack I first became a fan of, was the affable loser of the funny and romantic THE SURE THING and the cartoonishly quirky BETTER OFF DEAD… I miss that guy.

Before getting lost in in Pandora, James Cameron took us on a wild ride in THE TERMINATOR. His bad guy-gone-good turnaround of TERMINATOR II: JUDGEMENT DAY was an excellent twist, spawning another iconic villain in a sequel that more than held its own.

Seriously, don’t just move the tombstones

Although I was never a huge fan of horror films, a few manged to bring something special enough to draw me in and leave a mark.

POLTERGEIST had a big helping of Amblin magic, 1982’s THE THING brought the extreme in both setting and tension, while AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON manged an amazing combination of gore and guffaws. And I can’t forget the very first A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET that introduced us to charismatic child-killer, Frederick Charles Krueger.

THE UNTOUCHABLES serves as my favorite Kevin Costner Film, though BULL DURHAM was also a home run. I even liked Waterworld, but it doesn’t make the cut here.

In the musical category, I loved WEST SIDE STORY even before I saw it, thanks to my parents’ soundtrack album. A HARD DAY’S NIGHT is genuinely funny, and clearly a template for the Monkees TV show. Needless to say, THIS IS SPINAL TAP rates an 11.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t come up with any sort of grouping for the remaining orphans, so here they go, just one after another…

Coolest nerd in town

DANGEROUS LIAISONS (crackling dialogue, delivered crackingly well by Glenn Close and John Malcovich). GOODFELLAS (Joe Pesci makes a meal of it). MY FAVORITE YEAR (before Balki, Mark Linn-Baker had Peter O’Toole). THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (though I wanted a Stewart-Hepburn ending). THE PRINCESS BRIDE (inconceivably wonderful). BACK TO THE FUTURE (1.21 gigawatts of wonderful). SPLASH (did you think I was gonna leave out a Tom Hanks comedy?). RAISING ARIZONA (the best of the Cohen Brothers comedies). REAL GENIUS (I still hang my sunglasses from the back of my collar). RED DAWN (who didn’t want to be a Wolverine? Preferably one that didn’t die). YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (you can have Blazing Saddles, this is the one for me). UNFORGIVEN (wrenching, intense, and so very, very good).

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How about you? Any of these in your top ten? Top fifty? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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