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Reviews and Obsessions

What it Means to be a Fucking Human Being at The End of the Tour

by Matthew Cabe

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(Photo courtesy of A24)

It’s ironic that a movie about David Foster Wallace spends most of its reels honing in on the guy interviewing him.

It’s ironic and it’s apt.

Because whether or not you connect with the lionized version of Wallace fashioned in the wake of his 2008 suicide, his writing was always concerned with other people.

Sure, it’s true much of his work showcased a deeply complex, perceptive and flawed psyche, but his goal was always to push readers outward toward ideas of what it means to be alive and why we do the things we do.

This could be said about any writer, by the way, but Wallace’s uncanny ability to write conversationally (esp. in his non-fiction) makes reading him an absurdly personal experience.

His was the last boisterous voice in literature and he was the last rockstar novelist. Our current world is too loud and fractured and options-based for a mere writers’ say to carry much weight among anyone other than readers.

And maybe Wallace wanted it that way. At least that’s partly what one version presented in James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour suggests.

As a fan(tod) it’s a hard pill to swallow because anyone who reads Wallace’s work or listens to his interviews knows how privy and opposed he was to the world becoming what it has become: fully corporatized and digitized, and nearly fully desensitized.

Funny how the world he rallied against in much of his writing and thinking was the same world that might’ve allowed him to exist more comfortably since, had he emerged today, he would’ve most likely remained anonymous to a vast majority of people.

And still it’s not that simple. That particularly Gen-X aversion to fame is only one of numerous versions of Wallace Ponsoldt and Jason Segel crafted when bringing David Lipsky’s book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself to the big screen.

One of Wallace’s more skeptical contemporaries, Bret Easton Ellis, recently suggested the Wallace in the film is yet another portrayal in a growing list of “sentimental narratives” (i.e. films that offer up characters with whom audiences can easily identify; e.g. Solomon Northup from 12 Years a Slave).

There exists no challenge in “sentimental narrative” films since they work only to extract sympathy from viewers.

Ellis never bought into the regular-guy persona Wallace swore was his real mid-western self. That in death Wallace has become what Ellis refers to as “Saint David” — that his writings have achieved gospel status in the literary world — only escalates Ellis’s opinion that Wallace’s self-presentation was inauthentic.

“‘The End of the Tour,’ is surprisingly easy to take even though it’s reverential to a fault,” Ellis wrote, and it’s a fair argument.

The film’s trailer, which works to deceive and becomes nauseating upon multiple viewings, has banked on not just a public awareness of Wallace’s likability, but a public acceptance and lauding of that likability. Wallace’s incessant down-playing of his own genius, in essence, was the cleverest (authentic or not) of his career choices because Americans like regular guys. 

But to write the movie off as “an object of hero worship” as Ellis does is unfair, and Ellis — who thanks to his podcast has become one of the best minds discussing film today — forms his opinion of the film with too much distrust of Wallace himself.

Because while The End of the Tour does paint a likable and, yes, sentimental version of Wallace, it stops far short of hero worship to confront Wallace’s seemingly performative approach to not just celebrity but living itself.

In one scene, Jesse Eisenberg’s Lipsky — who accompanied Wallace on the last leg of his Infinite Jest book tour for a never-published Rolling Stone article — calls Segel’s Wallace out on his bullshit.

“You don’t crack open a thousand page book because you heard the author is a regular guy,” Lipsky says. “You do it because he’s brilliant.”

The underlying fear for Wallace in the film is that accepting his brilliance will alienate him. It’s a strange fear considering how fearful Wallace was of fame, and the film remains aware of that contradiction throughout; Lipsky never wavers from his suspicions even when it’s clear that he likes, is awestruck by, and yearns to be accepted by Wallace.

But it’s possible to be envious of a person, to like a person, and not-so-secretly wish you were that person even while you’re skeptical of his motives.

To misquote Wallace, that’s what it means “to be a fucking human being.”

So, really, the version of Wallace The End of the Tour presents is not Ellis’ “Saint David.” Sure, he’s likable, but he’s also overly competitive, pompous, childish and terrified. 

If there’s one takeaway from the film it’s that we’re all contradictions and that’s alright. It’s a simple, definitely cliched takeaway, but D.T. Max — who wrote a biography of Wallace — argues that those banal truths were the ones Wallace gravitated to most.

“[H]is mental life had run a huge circuit through the most astonishing complexities to arrive at what many six-year-olds and nearly all churchgoers already understood,” Max wrote.

So it makes sense that (unlike the trailer) the film offers few staggering truth nuggets. Like good fiction it asks more than it answers (Ellis would disagree). But what it’s doing more than anything is offering up one man’s memories.

Nearly every scene in the film is blurred to points of annoyance and malfunction— just like memory. All is seen through Lipsky’s eyes, which are colored with pain, admiration, resentment, a little guilt, and frustration — direct results of the many Wallaces Lipsky met during his extended interview.

And while Segel’s approach to those versions of a man is limited (read: not nuanced) at best, he’s still astonishing as the late author.

Segel seamlessly incorporates Wallace’s signature facial ticks (evident in a Charlie Rose interview) that are born out of a genius’ obvious panic that he’s coming across as way too bookish (i.e. not a regular guy). 

More than that, Segel’s voice is hauntingly similar to Wallace’s. In one scene, during a radio interview, it’s difficult to tell if what’s heard is Segel’s imitation or a recording of Wallace.

Usually biopic acting stifles the actor’s ingenuity because it requires a performance that’s largely impressionistic, but Segel manages to create a Wallace that achieves the rare feat of transcending replication that, in turn, denies distraction.

The End of the Tour is by no means perfect. It stumbles over itself as it attempts to introduce conflict through an all-too-familiar vulturous editor (Ron Livingston) and an all-too-clumsy inclusion of a near-bitter and needless love quadrangle.

Those scenes would’ve been rightly nixed if Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) were more confident in his directing abilities, which are above average.   

And while the film doesn’t play fast and loose with dialogue — most is taken verbatim from Lipsky’s book — it does take liberties with the tone of some of those conversations, which is another attempt to build conflict that may or may not have existed.

Despite its faults, however, we’re still left with a visually nostalgic recreation of a conversation between two guys who’re way too smart for their own good, and it’s fascinating to watch.

It’s a genuine rendering of a man so hellbent on preserving his own genuineness that he becomes disingenuous the more he worries about being anything but genuine.

At one point Wallace asks, “What’s this story about in your mind?” Lipsky responds, “Just what it’s like to be the most talked about writer in the country.”

And The End of the Tour might be the closest we’ll ever come to knowing. 

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“When We Have Control Again…”

by Matthew Cabe

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(Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Like the Indominus Rex, Jurassic World’s latest attraction, Chris Pratt is a hybrid.

He’s part Dr. Alan Grant, part Dr. Ian Malcolm, and part Robert Muldoon. He’s also part Owen Grady, which means he’s not as awestruck as the paleontologist, not as smart as the chaos theorist, and more sympathetic to the preservation and quality of dinosaur life than the game warden. This is a credit to his talent and charm, both of which previously eluded me.

These characteristics turn Pratt into a tidy bundle of signifiers that help discern what Jurassic World is: a competently rendered pastiche that isn’t as awestruck (or awe-inspiring), isn’t as smart, and, oddly, is and is not more sympathetic to the preservation and quality of dinosaur life than Jurassic Park.

The result should be a lousy movie. But Jurassic World’s self-awareness makes it the next best thing to it’s, uh, indomitable predecessor, and as it works tirelessly to undermine its grandeur, it paradoxically becomes more and less successful than both Jurassic Park and Jurassic Park.

It’s one of the more postmodern films of 2015, and the most ambitious in that regard of the major studio releases. It’s also a movie that struggles to justify its own existence and, as a result, attempts suicide at every turn. Eventually, it succeeds.

22 years after Dr. John Hammond’s disastrous experiment on Isla Nublar, Jurassic World is open and doing relatively good business. Somehow control has been regained. Hammond’s InGen Technologies was bought out in 1997 by Simon Masrani (inconsistently portrayed by Irrfan Khan), the CEO of Mascom, a corporation that’s damn near the top of Forbes’ Fortune 500 list.

Masrani, like Hammond, is a populist who found a way to make the theme park affordable for the general population. This was achieved primarily through corporate sponsorship. The main thoroughfare is littered with eateries and gift shops the average viewer will know well. Leasing these establishments must’ve cost the corporations more than a pretty penny, thus allowing a slightly less than astronomical price for admission. It’s plausible, too, that the park simply has a coupon day.

Also littered throughout the park are references to the now laid-to-waste work done by Hammond and his team all those years ago. A tram carries passengers through a familiar gate. There’s a bronze statue of Hammond and holograms of dinosaurs (the poison-spitting Dilophosaurus among them) in the new Visitor Center.

Mr. DNA is present, as is Dr. Henry Wu (BD Wong) the InGen geneticist who brought the original dinosaurs to life. Oh, and the Tyrannosaurus Rex, like, the same one, is back along with her diet of goat meat.

But attendance is unsteady at Jurassic World after a full decade in operation. People are no longer wowed by the mere presence of Brachiosauri or Triceratopses. According to Bryce Dallas Howard’s character, Claire Dearing, the park’s operations manager who shows symptoms of OCD and a Spielbergian loss of childlike wonder, “People want more teeth.”

This is a very meta move by director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed), who was aware that like the park’s attendees, moviegoers, too, would want more teeth.

So Dr. Wu and his colleagues cook up the Indominus Rex, a highly intelligent hybrid that’s got a little bit of the T. Rex, tree frogs, and cuttlefish tossed into its genetic makeup, as well as some secret stuff Dr. Wu refuses to divulge. The result is a camouflaging, bloodthirsty psychopath with the memory of an elephant and a penchant for showcasing its dominance.

Concerned by the I. Rex, Masrani asks Pratt’s Owen, a Velociraptor domesticator, to report on the security of the new animal’s enclosure. Owen is rightfully wary. It’s not long before the modified predator literally tricks the humans into inadvertently setting her free.

At this point the plot of Jurassic World becomes a mirror image of Jurassic Park. There’s the search for lost children, played by angsty Nick Robinson and mop-headed Ty Simpkins, respectively. There’s the ill-fated plan to return the park to working order, and the obligatory banter concerning man’s need to play God with little regard for the consequences.

There’s a love angle that’s in dire need of the two’s company, three’s a crowd tension of the original. And there’s even a scene in which the good ol’ T. Rex is lured by a flare, this time to a showdown with the I. Rex, an unavoidable metaphor for the unavoidable battle that will be waged over the merits of this film versus those of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 classic.

Spoiler alert: Spielberg wins. With a little help.

Two subplots never bolstered the film’s chances. One involves a divorce. The other involves more pilfering of dinosaur DNA. Both are ridiculously unnecessary.

But there is much to admire, too. The real joy is picking up on the homages not just to Jurassic Park, but to a slew of other movies. Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, The Birds, Birdemic, King Kong, Godzilla, and, lest we forget, two nods to the Spinosaurus from Jurassic Park III. Jurassic World knows it’s lineage.

It’s the nods to Jurassic Park, however, that are the most rewarding for audiences and for the film itself. Some are slyly subtle. Others are as subtle as a brisk slap across the face. These references work to remind us just how awesome Jurassic Park was and continues to be. As if we needed reminding. But they also prove that Jurassic World understands this truth and isn’t here to piss off any purists; it just wants to have a good time.

The most nostalgic geeks will appreciate Jake Johnson’s character purchasing an original Jurassic Park t-shirt on eBay for $150 and wearing it to work (a choice that is deemed insensitive by Claire, his boss), the return of Dr. Ian Malcolm in book form, a ritualistic burning of the “WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH” banner, and a Jimmy Buffett cameo, which isn’t nostalgic so much as it’s absurdly hilarious.

What results is a movie that, despite a valiant effort, becomes strangely original in its own campy way and suggests a great deal about the increasingly excessive nature of blockbuster entertainment. At the end of the day, it’s gratifying to watch Jurassic World lovingly wink at as it continually mimics a film and theme park that allowed for its very existence, as well as its inevitable extinction. 

The Future of Cinema is Discovered on Fury Road

by Matthew Cabe

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(Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

One of the pleasures provided by the Mad Max sequels are the crudely elaborate structures fashioned out of what little remains after the apocalypse.

In The Road Warrior it was a guzzoline-production compound that had a school bus for a gate and high walls of scrap metal that led to turrets on which football-padded defenders stood guard with flame throwers. In Beyond Thunderdome it was an entire city, Bartertown, where people exchanged what few goods they had for food or water or sex.

That everything is makeshift though means that everything is prone to collapse. The guzzoline compound exploded and Bartertown was destroyed by Max and a gaggle of misfit children whose clothes, mannerisms, weapons, domiciles, and politics were later mooched by Steven Spielberg for the Lost Boys scenes in Hook.   

Sixteen years have now passed since Mad Max creator George Miller knew a fourth film was inevitable. Back then, in 1999, Mel Gibson had already signed on to reprise the titular role. Filming was to begin in 2001, but in an interview with DP/30, Miller explained that “with 9/11, the American dollar collapsed against the Australian dollar, the budget ballooned out” and the project was put on hold.

Filming was again postponed in 2012. “It rained [in the Australian Outback] for the first time in fifteen years,” Miller stated, “and what was flat, red wasteland was now a flower garden.” Locals told the crew to wait out the unexpected rebirth of flora, that the water would eventually dry up. They waited a year before relocating the entire shoot to Namibia in southwest Africa.

Now Mad Max: Fury Road has finally been unleashed on the world, and it arrives vengefully intent on reclaiming the action genre for a practical mode of filmmaking CGI crusaders would have you believe is obsolete.

A staple in the series, beginning with a world on the brink of apocalypse in Mad Max, is the perpetual devolution of the landscape into an increasingly unfathomable wasteland of dirt and dust. Fury Road envisions that landscape at its most desolate.

All remnants of a semi-functioning society are gone. Bartertown’s demise has spawned several new anti-cities, the largest of which is The Citadel, ruled by a ruthless warlord named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in Mad Max).

Imortan Joe’s name is somewhat ironic. His failing body demands armor to protect what’s left of his leprous skin and a skull-like oxygen mask allows him to suck clean air out of a saggy bag hanging off the back of his head.

The Citadel functions as Joe’s final attempt at literal survival, as well as the survival of his bloodline. Joe is cognizant of his own mortality, and the legacy of war babies he hopes to leave behind is evidenced in his efforts to knock up his five sex-slave wives. Suggested here is notion that war could cease to be if power hungry psychopaths simply kept their dicks in their pants.

Ever the survivalist himself, Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) vows to steer clear of The Citadel (and, thus, the pesky complexities of human interaction that have wreaked havoc on his psyche), but is captured by Joe’s War Boys after a brief high-speed chase that ends with Max crashing his beloved Interceptor. He is soon enslaved and used as a human blood bag to revitalize a sickly War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult).

Health, by the way, is a major concern at The Citadel. Not only are the impoverished in bad shape, but those lucky enough to exist in proximity to Joe’s power also suffer from a wide-ranging array of physical and mental maladies that make the grotesque Baron Harkonnen in David Lynch’s Dune look like a model of wellness. None seem to care though because Joe has ingrained in his minions a belief that death in his name will result in glorious rebirth in Valhalla.

On the same day Max is enslaved, a convoy is set to embark on a routine mission to retrieve guzzoline from nearby Gas Town. In charge of the convoy is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), who has long been entrusted with Joe’s war rig. Furiosa has other plans this time though, and veers off-course while en route. It’s her decision, part of a desperate plan to free Joe’s enslaved wives, that sets the movie on its course down the metaphorical Fury Road.

What transpires is what Miller envisioned for his Mad Max universe from the start. The numerous fight and chase sequences consist of highly choreographed set pieces, each one more improbably remarkable than the last.

The world encountered along Fury Road is a larger-than-life replica of Miller’s imagination, and the artistry is like nothing else put on screen. Just as important though are the underlying social issues Miller is able to convey through the action.

For starters, there’s the gender politics. Furiosa, a one-armed badass, boldly stands against Joe’s belief that women exist merely to breed future generations of warmongers. More than freedom, however, she yearns for peace in the “Green Place” of her youth. At her side are the five wives and a group of longtime female survivors willing to defend Furiosa’s search for peace.

Sexism and ageism are two of the more pressing issues in Hollywood today. The roles these women play only strengthen the debate against both.

Max, meanwhile, is confined to a secondary role. The genius of this decision is that it’s what he’s wanted all along. Never in the previous films was Max in search of heroism; the moments simply found him and he reacted accordingly, if not reluctantly.

In Fury Road you almost forget he’s involved. Hardy fuels this absence with pithy, guttural dialogue. His actions speak slightly louder, but this is a performance of anonymity that paradoxically reveals a great deal about his painful past. 

Also central is the ever-topical inclusion of young men willing to die for a violent religious cause. There aren’t just echoes here of current concerns with militant groups like ISIS or the increasingly-tame-looking-by-comparison Taliban, but of the long and tragic history of bloody conflict carried out in the names of various, suspiciously absent gods.

When Nicholas Hoult’s Nux, an ardent believer in Joe’s Valhalla, realizes that afterlife isn’t nearly as important as life itself, his loss of faith is handled with a rare moment of quiet grace that rebuilds him into a much more complex character. It speaks volumes, then, that his insanity vanishes with the onset of his newfound faithlessness.

There is much to unpack, a rare feat for an action saga. But then, everything Fury Road accomplishes is rare and deserving of high praise. It dismantles the prevailing notion that only computers are capable of creating the next generation of what’s awe-inspiringly cinematic. History will regard it as a miracle of moviemaking and it already stands as the benchmark to which all future action films must aspire. But most of all, it renews a sense of visual wonder essential to this particular art form, and does so through use of the same reliable techniques that made movies uniquely wondrous in the first place.

Amorem Ex Machina

by Matthew Cabe

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(Photo courtesy of A24)

The dominating trend in cinema today is realism. Last year’s Godzilla reboot worked because the monsters were filmed primarily from a distance, at eye level. This effectively forced audiences into the role of first-hand witness.

But while Godzilla is not realistic in premise, it is realistic in style, tone, and depiction. So, if a giant lizard did happen to rise out of the ocean to wreak havoc on downtown San Francisco, Godzilla isn’t what it might look like, it’s what it would look like.

Our current realism kick is a byproduct of 9/11. Previous to that fateful day, that planes would explode into the World Trade Center was as far fetched an idea as monsters slugging it out in the heart of a panicked metropolis.

When the planes dropped from the sky, however, and the ensuing horror of the Twin Towers collapsing was caught on cameras near ground zero, all bets were off because nothing created in the history of film compared to the real thing. 9/11 was traumatizing and tragic. But it was also cinematic.

We’re now in a necessitated moment demanding of realism from every genre. This allows science fiction to enter new, albeit oddly familiar territory. Gone are the days of distant, dangerous futures. The best of today’s sci-fi plays out in the known universe of personal space.

It also acknowledges our proximity to perpetual technological advancement by favoring stories of what’s possible just around the corner as opposed to eons from now. It’s the one genre in which realism is in fact about premise as much as it’s about everything else.

Spike Jonze’s Her, for example, exists in the here and now of obsessive attachment to technology. It’s not that we could fall in love with our operating systems; it’s that loving seems downright inevitable.

The reason sci-fi has become more personal is a result not only of the rapid pace at which technology evolves, but also of how rapidly we adapt to those evolutions. We now have a spaceship primed for a flyby of Pluto before it continues on into our outer solar system. A rover on Mars is taking selfies. Robots are vacuuming our living rooms and giving us directions. Yet the magnitude of all this barely registers.

The rapidity of advancement is another 9/11 byproduct. Present consensus isn’t that technology is dangerous but, rather, that it will save us. The NSA clearly believes this, and our collective apathy toward that agency’s actions means we believe it, too. What was once cautioned against now stands as humanity’s primary hope for survival.

Enter Ex Machina, the latest in an increasing line of coming-very-soon-to-a-reality-near-you sci-fi films. Writer/director Alex Garland has crafted a contained, yet meticulously wondrous world that he believes exists “ten minutes from now”, at a time in which artificial intelligence lives and dies with the same desire as humans: to be free.

Arguably the most implausible element in Ex Machina is the inference that Google has been supplanted by a company called Bluebook. Bluebook’s bearded CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac), designed and lives in a remote compound where he conducts research on his most innovative creation, a humanoid robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander).

To test the believability of Ava’s A.I., Nathan holds a coding contest at Bluebook’s headquarters. The winner is Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a gifted programmer whose prize is a boozy meet-and-greet with Nathan, who’s foul-mouthed and seemingly wants nothing more than to shoot the shit.

His act soon fades. Nathan all but demands Caleb perform a weeklong Turing test on Ava. The young programmer already knows Ava is a robot, so, in theory, her chances of convincing him are all the slimmer. But Caleb is mesmerized from the start. After their first session, “She’s fucking awesome!” is all he can muster.

He’s not wrong. Ava is marvelous to behold. She has a beauty only the desperate desire of the male gaze could dream up. She’s also empathetic and curious, and contains an intelligence far beyond that of both men, though neither initially acknowledge this.

As the sessions continue, Caleb inevitably falls for Ava. And why not? She’s a sexual being and, lest we forget, anatomically correct. Everything about her seems human. The cadence of her voice and the movement of her body are affected in such slight ways—a testament to Vikander’s talent—that even we forget she’s a robot.

It’s Caleb’s naiveté, however, that leaves him vulnerable. He decides to help Ava escape the compound after she reveals that Nathan’s plans aren’t in her best interests. This isn’t exactly news. We doubt Nathan’s motives from the start. Revelations involving his delusional attempts at perfection work only to make us all the more circumspect.

But what’s most convincing is how Ex Machina allows the love between Caleb and Ava to build without discretion. As in most cases of intense affection, Caleb becomes incapable of rational thought.

In Her, by contrast, the characters played by Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams kept their love mostly to themselves. They were at least cognizant of how it might be perceived as strange (if not dangerous). That Ava is tangible eliminates the strangeness. Not once does Caleb believe his love to be anything but natural. Even more absurd is his belief in Ava’s ability to naturally reciprocate.   

In that sense, Ex Machina depicts a world that mirrors our own. It’s an earnest examination of how easily we interact with A.I., which is so user-friendly, so lifelike that the novelty of its very existence has worn off. That we adapt to each next big thing without challenge tricks us into believing a need for control is unnecessary. In other words, our defenses aren’t just down, they’ve practically gone extinct by way of robotic acceptance. 

The Lego Movie is So Last Year

by Matthew Cabe

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(Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

It took well over a year for me to realize I don’t hate The Lego Movie; hate can’t be reserved for something that so painstakingly shies away from its true self. So, instead, I merely feel sorry for it. Because the whole thing hit uncomfortably close to home, and what I mean by that is the movie made me feel as though I was watching a secretly awkward kid—about 13-years-old—who lies to his peers about what he thinks is cool in order to fit in.

This kid begrudgingly embraces skateboarding, bomber jackets, and wallet chains. He sags his baggy pants and fakes his way through conversations about drug references in Sublime songs (all the while not knowing that “pot” and “weed” are synonymous) out of fear that someone might clue in on his weekend plans, which will include earnestly lip synching R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” in front of a full-body mirror and excitedly driving to the local movie theater later that night to see Gosford Park by himself.

Actually, the Gosford Park viewing didn’t happen until a few years later, but you see what I’m getting at. Rather than tell us what it really enjoys (sitting alone in a basement constructing fake worlds out of colorful pieces of plastic) The Lego Movie feigns coolness by referencing all that is nearly unanimously agreed upon in pop culture in hopes that it will blend into the group, all the while hiding the fact that it’s a nerd in popular kid’s clothing with one simple, vague, frightened, Oscar-nominated statement of knee-jerk agreement: “Everything is awesome!”

All I can do now is be thankful that 2014 (and 1997 for that matter) are history. Because in the here and now of 2015, something as uncompromisingly surreal and proudly weird as The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water exists and it doesn’t care what anyone thinks.

Comparing these movies is fairly simple. Both include characters who journey toward discovering their true selves and where they fit in. Both rely heavily, in song and in dialogue, on the importance of teamwork. And, oddly enough, both the Lego universe, the world of Bikini Bottom (SpongeBob’s hometown), and all the characters therein turn out to be constructed by and eventually battle against seemingly higher powers working to stifle their free will.

But how SpongeBob works with these similarities is what sets it apart and above The Lego Movie. For example, it’s Lego’s protagonist, Emmet, who suffers an identity crisis and ultimately struggles to change for the better in order to become “the Special.” SpongeBob, by contrast, is perfectly comfortable in his own absorbent and yellow and porous skin, and he has every right to be because he fully understands both himself and his place in the world. Luckily, screenwriters Glenn Berger and Jonathan Aibel were aware of this, too, and chose instead to center their story around the personal growth of Plankton, Mr. Krabs’s arch nemesis and antagonist of the SpongeBob SquarePants television series.

The plot involves a search for the secret formula Mr. Krabs uses to make his world famous Krabby Patties, which has mysteriously vanished; however, it’s not Plankton, despite his best efforts, who steals the formula (although all of Bikini Bottom, save SpongeBob, refuses to believe this).

The real joys found in Sponge Out of Water lie in the hilarious scenarios SpongeBob and Plankton find themselves in during their search. By far the funniest sequence involves a makeshift time machine they use in an attempt to travel back to moments before the formula disappeared. Naturally, 2001: A Space Odyssey is invoked here, but the creators also animate SpongeBob and Plankton very differently to showcase the possible physical changes that might occur during time travel. It’s an obvious reference to the visual strangeness of SpongeBob predecessors The Ren & Stimpy Show and Rocko’s Modern Life, and it’s done to perfection.

On top of this is the clever use of N.E.R.D.’s song, “Squeeze Me”. Each time the machine starts up so does the song, including the only discernible lyric, an anticlimactic, “Yeaaaah.” Episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants often incorporate quirky ditties to augment the show’s oddball humor, but “Squeeze Me” is far and away the most effective example of this.

Speaking of music, a duet early on helps to establish another difference between Sponge Out of Water and The Lego Movie. Because whereas the aforementioned “Everything is Awesome” is an over-produced spectacle, SpongeBob and Plankton singing “Teamwork” is nearly forgettable by comparison. You wonder if the writers were swayed by Plankton’s initial refusal to sing and, as a result, crafted the song on such a small scale if only to appease him.

I’m sure that sounds like a dig, but it’s really just another example of how unique this movie is. It doesn’t pander and it doesn’t give in to expectations. Everything is done in service of its bizarre characters (there’s even a godlike dolphin who watches over the universe and shoots lasers out of his blowhole) and their admirable acceptance of one another’s eccentricities that culminates in them transforming into superheroes with powers that range from blowing copious amounts of bubbles to creating sonic booms with a clarinet. Sponge Out of Water is an example of what’s possible when differences are embraced and utilized to make the world a better place. It’s a movie that fears not whether you think it’s an odd duck. It’s the anti-Lego Movie. And everything about it is indeed awesome.

Blackhat Instructs, “We Gotta Grieve Later.” A Tall Task Indeed

by Matthew Cabe

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(Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

It’s hard to tell if Chris Hemsworth’s complete lack of personality in Blackhat is the fault of the actor himself, first-time screenwriter Morgan Davis Foehl, director Michael Mann, or if it’s an intentional play on the stereotype that surrounds real computer hackers. If the latter is the case, little effort is made by anyone involved to rectify the situation during the film’s 133 minute runtime.

Hemsworth (better known by his real name, Thor) plays Nick Hathaway, who is the most gifted (and sexiest and most buff and coolest) computer hacker the world has ever seen. Oddly, despite his talents, Nick doesn’t think much of himself. When asked what he’ll do “once this is all over” he responds, “Fix TVs and garage door openers.” And he’s not being coy, by the way; that knack evades him.

The “all this” referred to during the question is Nick’s attempts to thwart further cyber attacks after a fellow hacker introduced malware into the computer system of a nuclear power plant in Hong Kong that overheated the plant’s cooling pumps and resulted in an explosion. Shortly thereafter, the same hacker infiltrates the Mercantile Trade Exchange in Chicago and makes a killing in Soy Futures.

Nick is recruited out of his jail cell not only because he’s the best man for the job, but more importantly because he co-wrote the original code (that was modified and used in both attacks) with his MIT roommate Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang), who is now a Captain in the Chinese Army assigned to the case on their end. The old college chums are reunited upon Nick’s release and share a hearty embrace that’s capped off with Chen affectionately muttering, “So good to see you, bro.”

Their crackpot team is rounded out by Chen’s younger sister, Chen Lien (Wei Tang), the tragically wasted Viola Davis as FBI agent Carol Barrett, and a U.S. Marshal named Jessup (Holt McCallany), who tags along to ensure Nick doesn’t engage in any tomfoolery as they search for the blackhat hacker.

Along the way, Nick’s charmless demeanor wears down the defenses of Chen Lien, and the two begin a clothed and obligatory and emotionless sexual relationship. Lien, also an adept hacker, clearly sees something in Nick that non-hackers aren’t able to detect. She’s drawn to his alluring antisocial behavior, and the two spend a great deal of screen time gazing blankly at one another like cardboard cutout loners behind a high school gymnasium.

That is until Chen finds out about Nick’s trysting with his sister, which leads to a nonsensical conversation in a helicopter and Chen admitting, “I’ve rarely seen her happier.” despite the fact that he was clueless to their relationship, or her happiness, until he walked in on them in bed together just moments before.

But your reviewer digresses. Nick gets his team closer and closer to the blackhat through the bogarting of computers he conveniently finds in apartments and Thai restaurants. When they get too close, a shootout occurs that leaves a Chinese policeman, Alex Trang (Andy On) dead. Risking his own life, Nick leaps through a barrage of gunfire to mourn for Trang as he bleeds out from the neck. It’s an attempt to prove that Nick is, in fact, human, but the moment comes off as pointlessly dangerous and awkward given that he only just met Trang no more than ten minutes earlier.

Also awkward are 1) Numerous shots of actors staring off just beyond the camera for long stretches at images not important enough to reveal. 2) The audible dead air that pervades many scenes as Nick and his cohorts think hard about what to do next. 3) An NSA agent who naively opens a suspicious email and allows Nick to hack into a secret NSA program. 4) A climactic scene that involves a showdown with a “villain” (who resembles Dr. Jacoby of Twin Peaks fame and channels the combat skills of Mother Teresa) during a crowded parade in Jakarta in which several citizens are used as human shields (by our hero) after they fail to run for their lives seemingly because they were incapable of interpreting foreign gunfire into their native tongue.

And finally, your reviewer doesn’t normally delve into discussions involving the technical trifles of moviemaking, but the sound issues in Blackhat are problematic to say the least. There are multiple scenes during which mouths aren’t copacetic with the words they let out. In other scenes, the dialogue of characters who are offscreen is louder than that of their onscreen counterparts. And in yet another scene, Chen Lien’s voice actually gets louder after she turns away from the camera.

This might come across as nitpicky, but in a $70-million-dollar film that made good use of its budget by employing actual hackers to keep the proceedings as authentic as possible, it’s logical to expect something as routine as decent sound synchronization.

With Blackhat though, what’s expected is tossed by the wayside in favor of bland filmmaking about an even blander character. That this lackluster effort comes from Michael Mann (the director behind the stripped-down brilliance of Heat and Collateral) makes the film all the more disappointing. Grieving comes early—long before Nick says, “We gotta grieve later.”     

So Long as There’s One: Why the 87th Academy Award Nominations Aren’t Shocking

by Matthew Cabe

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Note: The years found within this article in which actors and actresses were nominated refer to the year their films were released, not the year in which their roles were nominated or when the respective Academy Awards show aired. 

When the Academy Award nominations were revealed last Thursday, the discussion immediately became about race and the all-white list of nominees in the four acting categories. Selma, the film centered on Martin Luther King, Jr. leading a march on Washington, was nominated for Best Picture, but David Oyelowo’s performance as Martin Luther King, Jr. was not. Ava DuVernay, the film’s director, was also left out of the Best Director category, which means Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu represents the one non-white nominee there.

One, by the way, seems to be the magic number. So long as one non-white person (usually African American) receives a nomination, the lack of cultural diversity rhetoric is tempered, if not quelled entirely. Of the four times Denzel Washington has been nominated for Best Actor, for example, he’s been the sole non-white actor in that category three times.

Below is the skinny on each category since 2000:

Best Actress

Nominees in the Best Actress category have been all-white two years running. 2012 marked the last year in which a non-white actress was nominated (Quvenzhané Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild). 2000, 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2010 were also years in which the category included all-white nominees. In the years in which non-white actresses were nominated (2001, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2011, and 2012), each included only one non-white actress. Halle Berry (in 2001) is the only non-white actress to win the award. If you’re keeping score, that’s seven non-white actresses and 68 white actresses nominated for the award since 2000.

Best Actor

All-white Nominees for Best Actor have come in five of the last 15 voting periods (2002, 2003, 2007, 2008, and 2014). Multiple non-white nominees came in 2001 (Denzel Washington and Will Smith), 2004 (Jamie Foxx and Don Cheadle), and 2006 (Forest Whitaker and Will Smith). In every other year (2000, 2005, 2009, and 2010-2013), the list of nominees included just one non-white actor. The total stands at 13 non-white nominees to 63 white. Three of those 13 won the award: Denzel Washington (2001), Jamie Foxx (2004), and Forest Whitaker (2006).

Best Supporting Actress

Best Supporting Actress might be the most diverse of the acting categories considering there were two years (2006 and 2008) in which three non-white actresses were nominated and another two years (2009 and 2011) in which two non-white actresses received nods. All-white lists occurred in 2000, 2001, 2005, 2010, and 2014. The inclusion of just one non-white nominee occurred in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2007, and 2013. Five non-white actresses have taken home the award: Jennifer Hudson (2006), Penélope Cruz (2008), Mo’Nique (2009), Octavia Spencer (2011), and Lupita Nyong’o (2013). Since 2000, 16 non-white actresses have been nominees compared to 60 white.

Best Supporting Actor

A mere 10 non-white actors have been nominated since 2000 whereas white actor nominees total 65. Three of those 10 won the award: Benicio Del Toro (2000), Morgan Freeman (2004), and Javier Bardem (2007). From 2008 to 2012, the category touted all-white nominees; this also occurred in 2001, 2002, 2005, and 2014, bringing the total of all-white lists to nine. 2003 and 2006 mark the only years in which multiple non-white nominees were included; 2003 had three: Benicio Del Toro, Djimon Hounsou, and Ken Watanabe. Barkhad Abdi (for his role in Captain Phillips) is the only non-white actor to be nominated in the category since 2007.

These statistics are even more staggering the farther back you research. But what all the acting categories have in common is that when a non-white actor or actress is nominated, the inclusion is routinely of only one (as shown above, in the Best Actress category it’s never been more than one), and that one always seems to go on to represent diversity among nominees.

Last year’s list of nominees has been touted as a banner year for cultural diversity; however, outside of Barkhad Abdi, the non-white nominees came from one film: 12 Years a Slave. And in the four acting categories, everyone was white except for Abdi, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Lupita Nyong’o. Of those three, only Nyong’o won.

The point is that this year’s nominees don’t represent a moment of regression in Academy voting so much as they display a more obvious version of a recurring theme. Of course, zero nominations for non-white actors and actresses is without question a glaring lack of diversity to say the least; however, if we’re being honest, so is one.

According to a Los Angeles Times article published in December of 2013, 94% of the Academy’s 6,028 voters were white, 77% were male, and the median age among voters was 63. And once you become a member, you’re in for life, which means significant changes to the demographics of the voting body will, no doubt, take decades.

The bottom line is that the Academy, both in members and voting habits, has never been diverse. And while the Oscars remain the most prestigious awards show out there, in no way are they reflective of the diversity that continues to grow among non-white filmmakers, actors, and actresses, et cetera.

Arguably the bigger issue, which was addressed in Top Five, Chris Rock’s latest film, is not which non-white actors and actresses are getting nominated, but for what roles they’re getting nominated. Especially in the Best Actor category, nominations for non-white actors tend to go to actors who play historical figures. Since 2000, six of the 13 nominees came from biopics. That number significantly decreases to just one on for Best Actress (Salma Hayek for her role in Frida), but the other nominated roles all have race relations at their center.

Whereas white actors and actresses earn nominations for a wide variety of performances, their non-white counterparts often earn nominations for roles that come from one of the three following categories: biopics (like Ali, Ray, or Frida), historical dramatizations (12 Years a Slave or Hotel Rwanda), or harrowing stories of poverty survival (Precious or The Pursuit of Happyness). In each, race plays a pivotal role that white actors rarely encounter.   

In Top Five, Rock plays a comedic actor named Andre Allen who is looking to break into more serious, Academy-friendly roles. To do so, he chooses to portray Dutty Boukman in a film entitled, Uprize!, a biopic that documents the Haitian Revolution. The choice’s familiarity is what makes it satirical. Rock’s point seems to be that when it comes to serious roles, there aren’t many out there for non-white actors and actresses that don’t involve race or a person of historical note.

For the record, it’s easy for me, a white male, to disregard this trend as pigeonholing. Clearly, many people want films like Selma, 12 Years a Slave, or Fruitvale Station to be made. It’s also arguable that, given the state of the Academy, these films must be made; race is still very much at the top of important issues in America (if nothing else, the events in Ferguson, Mo. prove that).

But it doesn’t seem coincidental that the snub of David Oyelowo for his performance of the martyred Dr. King resonates at a higher frequency than that of Rock’s for his performance in Top Five, which, in my opinion, was just as deserving of a nomination.

So why does race (and the lack of diversity) play such a crucial role in the Academy’s annual pitting of art against art? And if art is to be judged, shouldn’t the judging be done with regard to artfulness, not the skin color of those involved in artistic creation?

Maybe. But the real answer, at least when the Academy Awards are concerned, lies in the above statistics, as well as in the overwhelming whiteness and purported importance of the Academy itself. There’s simply too much of a continuous trend to ignore the lack of diversity.

The problem is that there is a myriad of other awards out there, but being nominated for and/or winning an Academy Award is seemingly the only way toward industry prestige. It’s a career maker in many cases, and the names of nominees and winners alike become inseparable from the Academy; just take a look at how movies are marketed when they include a past nominee or winner.

However, author Bret Easton Ellis once disregarded that prestige when he said, “The Oscars are interesting because they reveal what Hollywood is thinking about itself. What it’s thinking it does best.” If there’s any truth to Ellis’s statement, maybe the best response to the lack of diversity inherent in this year’s Academy voting is the advice Spike Lee gave Ava DuVernay in an interview with The Daily Beast: “Fuck ’em.”

Because despite the guise of prestige, awards don’t make a movie artful or even great, and a lack of awards doesn’t diminish a film’s accomplishments. Dozens and dozens of great films never received recognition from the almighty Academy. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was notoriously snubbed in 1990 in favor of Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy.

Like Selma, Lee’s film earned just two nominations, one for Best Supporting Actor (Danny Aiello) and the other for Lee’s screenwriting. Neither won; however, in Lee’s own words from the same Daily Beast interview, “Nobody’s talking about motherfuckin’ Driving Miss Daisy. That film is not being taught in film schools all across the world like Do the Right Thing is.”

He’s right, and Driving Miss Daisy isn’t the only misfire. Past Academy’s choices for Best Picture alone includes a long list of films that produce puzzled if not outraged reactions. And if the present history of Academy voting is any indication, the test of time Lee refers to is not only for films to stand, but for non-white filmmakers, actors, screenwriters, producers, et al, as well.

Top Ten Films of 2014

by Matthew Cabe

While some felt entirely aimless and others led to specific destinations, the best films of 2014 all shared one thing in common: they wandered. It’s an unlikely theme given the current state of the film industry, which is dominated by countless hordes of hopeful heroes all piling on top of one another while trying to save the world from utter collapse (or at least trying to jockey themselves into a position that will allow them to save the world in the sequel). But it’s a welcome theme, too.

This is probably just me—given the box office many of these movies did—but I say let the mother fucker burn. Because as far as the big budget movies are concerned, 2014 was a year of prolonged excitement that more often than not led to one let down after another.

But it wasn’t all bleak. There’s actually a lot to be thankful for and excited about when we look back on the year in film. Because the real triumphs came from independent and foreign voices that proved (with one exception) that you don’t need a superhero to tell a compelling story. These films also showed that experimentation within filmmaking is far from dead.

When all was said and done, I saw 63 new releases in 2014. There are still many I want to see. There’s even one we were nearly denied, but that’s just the way it goes in the era of cyber warfare. Of those 61 films, I’ve listed my choices for the year’s ten best below.

One last thing: Originally I had decided to write roughly 200-words on each film. After finishing the sixth, however, I scrapped the idea entirely because it was just too damn long. Also, my New Year’s resolution is to make a conscious effort to learn the ways of brevity (you’re welcome), so the ten films will be accompanied by one lone sentence to sum up why they stand out as the the best of the best. Enjoy!

THE LIST

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10. Joe Swanberg’s Happy Christmas

What’s refreshing about the quarter-life crises Swanberg’s characters face is that they’re less about the specifics of uncertainty and more about how people come together to deal with it.

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9. Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake

This French drama examines who and what a person is willing to lose (even if he doesn’t know they’re at stake) in order to fulfill selfish desires.

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8. Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best!

Moodysson weaves a mostly subtle story of friendship and growth that centers on three young Swedish girls determined to keep punk rock alive in the 1980s despite the insistence of everyone they know that punk is dead.

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7. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ralph Fiennes gives one of the best performances of the year as a hotel concierge in what is Anderson’s best and most emotional work since The Darjeeling Limited.

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6. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice

The hazy, druggy, lonesome vibe of Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel is what really matters in the end, which is convenient since most of the characters are too stoned to remember what they’re searching for, anyway.

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5. Chris Rock’s Top Five

Rock needs just one day in New York City to offer a bold and hilarious look at what a post-race America might look like at a time when racial tension is unavoidable.

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4. Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip to Italy

In the best sequel of the year, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon once again match wits and impersonations in an egotistical battle on the open road that often diverges down roads toward larger issues of mortality, family, and sex.

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3. Lars von Trier’s Nymph()maniac: Vol. I & 2

It’s impossible to learn anything about sex unless you incorporate underage blowjobs, religion, fishing metaphors, shame, bondage, lies, miscommunication, golden showers, and death into the story of a woman’s reawakening.

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2. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

The life-or-death struggle for artistic integrity on Broadway is exacerbated when the deranged ghost of former superhero glory lurks around every dimly-lit backstage corridor.

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1. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

What elevates Boyhood above every other great film of the year is that Linklater’s ambitious approach not only showcases the natural evolution of his characters, but also the evolution of his talents and of filmmaking itself.

P.S.—Had I never been fortunate enough to see the movies on the above list, my top ten may or may not have included (in no particular order): Ida, Chef, Under the Skin, Tusk, Fading Gigolo, Obvious Child, Snowpiercer, The Hunger Games: MockingjayPart I, and A Field in England.

Inherent Vice Asks, “Ya Dig?” Yeah, Man, Far Out.

by Matthew Cabe

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As far as plot goes, Sortilége lays out the gist pretty succinctly in the trailer for Inherent Vice: “If it’s a quiet night out at the beach and your ex old lady suddenly out of nowhere shows up with a story about her current billionaire, land-developer boyfriend, and his wife, and her boyfriend, and a plot to kidnap the billionaire and throw him in a loony bin, maybe you should just look the other way. But if you’re Doc, it may all start to get a little peculiar after that.”

Sortilége is the narrator and sometimes ghostly presence who pops up once in a while as the manifestation of “Doc” Sportello’s (played hazily by Joaquin Phoenix) gut feeling. As the definition of her name suggests though (you can look that up on your own), she might also be something more omniscient and enchanting, which would explain how she knows the plot even before Doc slowly pieces some of it together.

But the plot isn’t what Inherent Vice is about. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) uses it, and a myriad of characters therein, to reveal what’s going on underneath the surface, which has more to do with uncertainty amidst inevitable cultural and topographical transformation, and the loneliness felt in reaction to those changes.

Doc is an aging hippie and a private investigator, and it’s often difficult to discern which he’s better at. He liberally smokes grass while interviewing people who may or may not lead him toward answers he’s not even sure he needs. Occasionally, he scribbles key words down onto a small notepad not because they’re pertinent to anything in his investigation, but because they’re what his pot-addled brain clings to in a given moment.

The whole thing gets pretty convoluted, but this never kills the film’s vibe. A long cast of supporting characters who, like Doc’s ex old lady Shasta (Katherine Waterston), often show up out of nowhere to further complicate matters with misinformation to appease their equally convoluted motives.

Some of them, like Doc, are hippies. Others are prostitutes or musicians. A few appear to be straight-laced. And others are strange mutations of 1950’s domesticity begrudgingly altered by a decade of counter-culture grooviness that has only slowly started to fall out of fashion by 1970, the year in which the story takes place. These mutations are holier than thou, dress anachronistically out of respect and yearning for that simpler era gone by, and have learned to navigate their present by letting go their former innocence to combat and financially gain from the waning counter culture’s own weapon (or vice): drugs.

Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, brought to life by a frustratingly pent up Josh Brolin in one of his best performances, is one of these mutations. He’s even more complex though because his frustration stems from the faux seriousness he must display to gain respect and a growing itch to know what might happen if he were to just stop giving a shit.

But he’s too buttoned-up to let a decent high loosen him up (a wild drug-ingestion scene proves this). Still, Brolin’s Bigfoot is the perfect foil to Phoenix’s seemingly laid back Doc because their differences reveal in one another an interior curiosity for change at a crucial moment in time that’s bringing more than a little wear and tear to both their exteriors. They seem to have a fondness for one another that goes unspoken because they’re unsure what each sees in the other to be fond of.

Like Solitége warned, things do get a little peculiar so don’t feel bad if you’re confused. It’s best to do what Doc or Bigfoot aren’t capable of, which is to embrace the strangeness of change. The movie sure does. By the end, everything is as hazy as Doc’s mind. It’s unclear whether he accomplished the mission, failed miserably, or got sidetracked by favors he paid to other people he met along the way. Like the plot, however, these particulars don’t really matter and Anderson points that out by leading us all over southern California with no real destination in mind.

This aimlessness has led some critics to compare Inherent Vice to Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski, but there’s a definite structure and neatness to the the Coen’s film that doesn’t exist in Anderson’s. Lebowski has aimless characters; Inherent Vice has a story that wanders as much as its main character.

What’s more interesting though is that unlike Jeff Bridges’s Dude, who’s never truly affected by what happens around him, Phoenix’s Doc shows faint glimmers of actual interest in what the changes occurring around him mean and how they’ll affect the people he cares about (Shasta, specifically). What is happening to the Los Angeles he knew? What will this new decade bring with it? Is he destined to remain lonely and isolated in the nebulous world of Gordita Beach? Will the uncertainty ever diminish? No one really knows.

What is certain though is that even the slightest rumination on change means an awareness of its existence, no matter how undefinable it is. He’s not inherently incapable of preserving himself, as the title suggests. Doc simply knows that nothing lasts; his yearning for the Shasta he once knew and loved is evidence enough. And that awareness suggests that unlike the immortal Dude, the present Doc will not abide forever. 

The Most Important Movie in America

by Matthew Cabe

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When South Park, and later Family Guy, finally came into their own and made the “nothing is off limits” approach to comedy en vogue in the early noughties, an ironic but obvious by-product emerged. Because nothing was safe, both shows occasionally targeted art mediums, a few of which serve as the very reason for either show’s existence. While South Park tended to focus its lampooning on movies and actors, Family Guy usually went after writers given that one of the characters, Brian (a dog), fancies himself a serious writer who believes in his ability and refuses (in theory) to pander in order to achieve fame as a serious artist.

These moments are undoubtedly funny. You can’t help but laugh when George Clooney is depicted as a giant smug cloud traveling across America in South Park, or when Stewie mocks Brian’s dream of penning the next great American novel in numerous episodes of Family Guy. Underneath the comedy, however, especially in Family Guy since it’s essentially a farce and lacks the satirical moral compass that underpins South Park, is the feeling that creating serious art with something dangerous or provocative to say, is merely a fool’s errand in our current culture.

I don’t mean that the creators believe this, by the way. In their own ways, both shows are artistic, daring and have something meaningful to say. I mean that the actions and opinions of the characters on the shows perpetuate the notion that art is created only in a vacuum, and has become niche, spineless and, as a result, inconsequential to a majority of people who have more important things to worry about like working to pay their bills and making sure their kids get to school on time.

My point is that amid the pressing realities of day-to-day life, there isn’t much time left to engage in anything capable of making people think critically or feel outrage toward injustices that have been done. There’s barely enough time to watch a full episode of these shows anymore, which is why the hits on their YouTube clips are in the millions.

Dan Sterling is a former South Park staff writer and wrote the screenplay for The Interview, which became the most important film of 2014 when, earlier this week, Sony Pictures Entertainment banned the film’s theatrical release, a decision that stemmed from online threats of terrorist acts similar to what occurred on 9/11 if the movie was shown in American cinemas.

In an interview on KPPC’s The Frame, conducted before Sony scrapped the film’s release, Sterling said, “I don’t think [The Interview] was going to change North Korea, but I thought it might change the way people approach comedy and encourage people to make bolder movies.” He added, “The fantasy was is that this would be a huge box office success, and that they would hold me and Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg] up on their shoulders and carry us all around saying, ‘From now on we’re gonna do comedies that are really risky and that attack big, political subjects and find ways to be funny!’”

Sterling’s comments shouldn’t come as a shock. South Park, the show for which he was once a writer, is about as bold a commentary as anything in pop culture today. So it makes sense that one of his ambitions was to embolden other writers and filmmakers to be more daring in their approach to comedic films. It also makes sense that he would want The Interview to become a financial success because that might’ve opened the door to production companies taking risks on more comedies (and films in general) that do have something important to offer.

Sony’s decision to ban the film’s release effectively destroys those dreams. But this controversy goes far beyond the immediate discussion of an unprecedented denial of free speech in America at the intimidating behest of another country that itself has no free speech. Sterling’s hope that the film would be a box office success says a lot about the state of the film industry on a whole, which has grown increasingly more profit-centered since corporations began taking over the studios.

They’re only after the bottom line, and as Mark Harris apocalyptically laid the reality of the situation out in a recent piece for Grantland, profits in a capitalist society are ensured by sticking to what sells, not what’s provocative or bold, different or original. It’s fair to assume, then, that in the future it will prove even more difficult than it already is in the present market not only to get studios to release films that have something to say, but also to get writers to write screenplays for those kinds of movies. In turn, what’s left of art in the film medium will suffer and, ultimately, die.

But let’s get back to the ban itself. It’s been called a “canceled release”. “Shelved” and “pulled”  are other terms that’ve been used. But that doesn’t change the fact that a ban is what we’re now dealing with. Using more easily-digestible words doesn’t change that. “Enhanced interrogation methods” are still acts of torture, to use a recent and disturbing example.

Of course, many films have been banned in America and other countries throughout history for one reason or another. According to good ol’ Wikipedia, in 1939, when Charlie Chaplin was in production on The Great Dictator, a film that satirizes Nazis and, more pointedly, Adolf Hitler, the British government stated it wouldn’t allow the film to be shown in the United Kingdom. That changed after the films release in 1940 because Great Britain was then at war with Germany. Hitler also banned the film, and Chaplin was included on a death list of Hitler’s, which gives an idea of what the former führer thought of the film, if in fact he saw it.

The ban on The Interview is different though because it is widespread and perpetuated by Americans. It’s granted that the ban came in the wake of terrorist threats, but giving in to demands based on the vague possibility of retaliation robs us of our right as Americans to stand up to those threats. What’s more is Sony’s decision has worked to exacerbate the demands rather than stifle them since now, according to CNN, the hackers have instructed Sony to also scrap any and all Interview-related materials from public consciousness. In essence, the goal is to snuff out the film’s entire existence, which is probably absurd in the age of endless content.

This is what happens, and will continue to happen, when the distribution of art is left in the hands of corporations rather than artists. It would be easy to shrug this off as not a big deal because, after all, it’s just a little comedy. Just a little movie. Doing so, however, would be to miss the point entirely, which is that our freedoms (what supposedly make us Americans) have been violated. As Americans, we should be enraged in the same way we are enraged when other inalienable rights are taken from us. We should be demanding the release of this film, and damning the actions taken by all involved that have irrevocably jeopardized both artistic expression and our right to reckon with and determine that art’s merit, or lack thereof.

Odds are The Interview isn’t as pointed or even as good as the backlash to its ban implies. Currently, the film holds a 52% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes (though 96% of fans rightly want to see it) and a score of 45 (out of a possible 100) on MetaCritic. In a segment also on KPPC’s The Frame, Justin Chang (Variety‘s chief film critic) and Silas Lesnick (associate editor at ComingSoon.net) weighed in on the film and agreed that its subversiveness could have gone further.

Whether the film is good or not is immaterial, but that it’s subversiveness and daring has been deemed lackadaisical by those few who have seen it makes the ban all the more perplexing and contemptible. Because if something as apparently benign as The Interview is capable of being banned, it’s logical to conclude that future films with possibly more bite will certainly suffer the same fate.

There is, however, one positive than can be gleaned from the ban, and that is despite ever-mounting evidence to the contrary, art is not a silly trifle to be disregarded as unimportant or comical. Clearly, art still holds the power to be substantial in our lives, to contain ideas and messages that warrant the very risk of censorship. In short, to be dangerous. But it’s up to us to allow that power to flourish, those ideas to be heard and seen, and that danger to exist. And we’re failing.