“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.

“Cruising” (1980) dir. William Friedkin

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One of the most controversial films ever released by a major Hollywood studio (in this case, United Artists), “Cruising” was definitely the wrong film at the wrong time. Released in 1980, the film is about a detective, played by Al Pacino, who goes undercover into the gay leather S&M subculture to find a killer who is stalking and killing people who are part of the scene. As the film progresses, Pacino’s character becomes more distraught and disturbed by what he’s finding. Pacino’s character is not only discovering things about himself he doesn’t want to admit, but he may also be losing his sanity in the process.

OK, based on the above description, my plot description reads like some retro gay-panic cautionary tale penned by someone like Jerry Falwell. Given the fact that in 1980, there were very few films with positive gay role models, it’s easy to see why gay people were outraged by this film.

However, after over 30 years of a much more diverse representation of the homosexual community in media, the complexities of this film are more apparent and it can now be viewed a lot more objectively.  I don’t believe this film is saying that anyone who hangs around homosexuals will suddenly become gay and insane.  “Cruising” is a character study of one man, who was probably not stable to begin with, being overwhelmed by what he’s supposed to investigate.  If you watch carefully, Pacino provides many clues to his character’s internal demons early on, without explicitly calling them out.  That is the work of a fine actor.

“Cruising” contains one of Al Pacino’s best acting performances and it was right before “Scarface” turned him into one of cinema’s most overbaked hams.  This is not to say Pacino delivered a bad performance in “Scarface” or in other films since then.   It’s just that this is one of the last times Pacino didn’t chew the scenery.  From what I understand, Pacino has refused to discuss this film at all.

Director William Friedkin has never been one to shy away from troubling material or to leave audiences feeling uneasy when they leave the theater. Even his most popular films “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” don’t have tidy conclusions. “Cruising” is no different. While it’s understandable why someone may not like “Cruising,” the film shouldn’t be dismissed as the homophobic (or homophilic) garbage the critics of the time alleged.  The film is brilliantly directed and edited.  The sound design alone (where you can hear leather and chains throughout the entire film) is enough to be very unnerving.  There’s also an overwhelming sense of dread that permeates the film.  Had it been released in the mid-1980s or beyond, everyone would say the film was a metaphor for AIDS.

The film also contains some excellent supporting performances from Paul Sorvino, Karen Allen, Joe Spinnell, Don Scardino, Powers Boothe, and Mike Starr.  It also has one of the first punk soundtracks on a major studio film, featuring songs by Mink DeVille, the Germs, and Rough Trade.  Jack Nitzsche does another fine and effectively creepy score.

If you’re curious about “Cruising,” be warned that the film contains some very disturbing graphic violence.  In addition, the film does very explicitly show the gay leather S&M underworld of the late 1970s.  It barely squeaked by with an R-rating in the permissive late 1970s and I’m sure it would have a hard time now.

“Cruising” also inspired James Franco’s recent film called “Interior. Leather Bar.”  Co-directed by Franco and Travis Mathews, the film attempts to chronicle the explicit footage that was cut of “Cruising” and has been subsequently lost.  It’s telling that a major Hollywood star being involved in a film like this gets no more than a shrug these days.  Especially when he’s the lead in an upcoming hyper-expensive Disney fantasy film.

Probably the most bizarre footnote is that Steven Spielberg was attached to direct “Cruising” at one point in the early 1970s.

The Oral History of Freaks and Geeks, Vanity Fair, January 2013

www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2013/01/freaks-and-geeks-oral-history?mbid=social_mobile_email

The best TV show about teenagers of all time (and arguably one of the best TV shows about any subject, ever), “Freaks and Geeks” is one of those shows that continues to amaze, even after it was yanked after one season in 2000. If you’ve never seen it, the entire series is available on Netflix Instant and is a must-see. It’s one of the truest and painfully funny things you’ll ever watch. At the link above is a terrific and lengthy oral history of the show from the January 2013 issue of “Vanity Fair.” If you’re a fan of the show, or are fascinated by the severe ups and downs of the creative process in the entertainment industry, check it out.