Critics Corner: THE INTERVIEW

Read two critical perspectives on The Interview (Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen), by Joe Mader and Dennis Harvey. The Interview is playing now in the Bay Area and nationally—click here for a list of Bay Area theaters, and here for a list of screening venues across the US. It’s also available for streaming on YouTube.

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Note from EatDrinkFilms Publisher Gary Meyer: It has been a long time since a movie garnered as much national attention as The Interview. In little more than a week we watched as the stars and creators went from appearing all over TV and radio to suddenly canceling appearances (including James Franco bowing out of a Palo Alto screening at the Roxie in San Francisco but not the “We Are The World”-style finale of The Colbert Report, ironically singing “We’ll Meet Again” from the end of Dr. Strangelove .) All this because of the Sony Pictures Entertainment hack and threats by the hackers, claiming to represent North Korea, that they would evoke memories of 9/11 at theaters showing the movie. In short order, the major theater circuits, concerned about attendance in adjacent auditoriums being depressed if they also played this “dangerous movie,” pulled The Interview with Sony’s permission. When the number of screens shrunk to almost none, Sony took the film out of release. It was a combination of “safety for the masses,” fear of more embarrassing emails and other confidential info being released, and a desire to cut losses in terms of marketing. And maybe Sony could collect from the insurance company on the unreleasable film.

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The Interview co-conspirators James Franco, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen look deep into the laptop vortex.

But then a kind of art cinema Justice League of America jumped into action. A group of independent cinema operators called the Art House Convergence, who support each other via listservs and an annual pre-Sundance conference, drafted an open letter to the Sony executives expressing sympathy for their problems and offering to play The Interview in many independent theaters.

Initially rebuffed by some in the industry, this letter was suddenly taken seriously when the President spoke out against the film being suppressed. And in a matter of two days, over 300 independent theaters signed up to play the movie. I guess Sony decided they could handle more confidential memos being released in exchange for showing strength in defending our freedoms.

James Franco as Dave Skylark in The Interview .

James Franco as Dave Skylark in The Interview .

If The Interview brings new audiences and more box office success to independent theaters, it will have underwritten the daring programming many of these venus display throughout the year, and this will be a terrific thing. Word is that many of the theaters have sold out most of their weekend shows. Russ Collins of the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, Tim League of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas and Barbara Twist of the Convergence took the lead on this, and we congratulate them on a job well done. Click here (password: america) to watch a very short intro that Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen filmed at the request of Tim League.


TheInterview3THE INTERVIEW: Hollywood Night Terrors

by Joe Mader

Poor Sony Pictures. It’s as if they investigated all the possible ways to screw up, and then went ahead and decided to pursue each one, as well as some they stumbled on by chance, such as believing that any idiot can manage network and IT security. Where should passwords be stored? In a folder named “Passwords” that contains a bunch of files named “Passwords,” duh. That way you can easily retrieve the passwords if you forget them! Thus it was that those super-sophisticated hackers, the Guardians of Peace (a name that sounds like it came right from a South Park episode), were able to accomplish the same thing any grandma with a dial-up modem could have. (Granted, it would have taken Grandma’s dial-up a lot more time to download all those emails.)

When the self-same GOP (no, not the Grand Old Party) made a highly implausible threat to blow up 18,000 movie theaters at once if they dared to show the now infamous film The Interview , wherein North Korea’s Kim Jong-un (also infamous) is portrayed with less respect than some feel is warranted, various movie theater chains quaked in their boots and said no thanks. Sony decided it had no choice but to pull the film from release. The logic of that decision is troublesome (surely they had other choices, such as the one they’ve now made to release it to theaters willing to show it), but the film biz rarely runs on logic.

TheInterview4The only thing I don’t fault Sony for is greenlighting the picture in the first place, although many people do, including the Washington Post ’s Justin Moyer, who wrote an idiotic editorial stating that North Korea is justified in its reaction to the movie, confusing the country’s leadership with its entire populace. Co-directors and writing partners Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogan have made a whole lot of money for Sony and other studios with their comedies and they didn’t do it by playing safe, exactly. Audiences expect a Seth Rogan movie to be outrageous and portraying the assassination of an actual world leader fits the bill, especially one as seemingly crazy as Kim. Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of South Park , routinely do worse in their TV series, and the 1999 South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut gleefully portrayed a post-mortal Saddam Hussein having a gay relationship with Satan in hell long before we invaded Iraq, deposed Hussein, and watched as the makeshift Iraqi government sentenced and executed him. Moyer also imagines the outrage that would ensue if another country made a film wherein Obama was assassinated or if Iran made a film about the killing of an Israeli Prime Minister. We have fellow American citizens that would gladly make the former film—Dinesh D’Souza has come damn close—and I assume Iran and/or several other Middle East states make a version of the latter about every six months or so.

Let’s also spare a harsh thought for Paramount, who refused to let theaters affected by The Interview cancellation instead show Team America: World Police , the Matt Stone/Trey Parker comedy that mercilessly spoofs Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, among many other ripe targets.

Is The Interview any good? Of course not. I saw the film at a screening at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre a few weeks ago, when the whole brouhaha was still at a low boil, and, fair warning, I was not expecting to write on it, so I took no notes and didn’t tax my memory by retaining a lot of details. (Also, full disclosure, I sat next to my friend and co-Interview reviewer Dennis Harvey, although neither of us knew the other was going to be there.)

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That Seth Rogen is no actor is not a startling discovery, but the decline of James Franco continues to surprise. (This may be the first of their movies where Rogen is actually better than Franco.) As the unctuous talk show host Dave Skylark (think Ryan Seacrest or Billy Bush), you need an actor with quicksilver timing and manic energy: Steve Carell or Will Farrell, for example. Instead we’ve got Franco serenely smiling his stoner’s grin through every scene, the most relaxed bro in the frat. The film does manage a few good laughs at the beginning, when Eminem, playing himself as a guest on Skylark’s show, stoically makes an outrageous admission about his personal life. Rogen portrays Aaron Rapaport, Skylark’s producer and best friend. Both men want to be taken seriously as journalists, so they’re elated when it turns out Kim Jong-un (Randall Park, the only actor in the entire enterprise with true comedy chops) is a fan and offers an exclusive, albeit tightly controlled, interview. And as surely the entire world now knows, the CIA, in the form of Lizzie Caplan’s Agent Lacey, gets involved and asks our heroes to poison Kim for the good of mankind. But the assassination isn’t really what the movie’s about. As the New York Times TV critic Mike Hale brilliantly wrote after being pressed into service when his editors realized he’d been at a similar screening in New York and was thus the only person on staff who’d seen the damn thing, “The real threat in The Interview isn’t a wackadoodle dictator, it’s the night terrors of loneliness and inadequacy that seem to bedevil a wide slice of Hollywood’s 30- and 40-something men and that are sublimated onscreen into weepy bromance, gross-out humor, gratuitous female nudity and intimations of homosexuality.” Yup. The film treats Skylark’s growing realization of North Korea’s ills sentimentally, in clichéd Hollywood style, rendering viewers queasy in a way the over-the-top gore and explosions of the assassination couldn’t.

TheInterview6But none of this means that theater owners should have refused to show the film, and it certainly doesn’t mean Sony should have pulled the film from release. One of the few voices of sanity in the whole mess belonged to George Clooney, who in an interview with Deadline.com declaimed, “We cannot be told we can’t see something by Kim Jong-un, of all fucking people.” Right on, George.

Sony has now been shamed into releasing the film and kudos to everyone who contributed to that shaming. Movies, like all popular art forms, maybe even all art forms period, are a percentage game. About 90% of all efforts result in worthless crap: It’s the remaining 10% that makes us stick around and continue to attend and even love them. (Your percentages may vary.) And there are no shortcuts to that 10%. You have to defend the right of the crap to exist and be seen just as surely as you defend the actual art. If we forbid artists to fail, then they can never succeed. If we forbid hacks from attempting to make art, then someone who isn’t a hack will also be constrained. And if we cower when tyrants of any ilk express outrage and condemnation, then freedom of expression is meaningless. Now that you’ll be able to view The Interview , feel free to see it or not. (And if you’re on the fence, see it, if for no other reason than to support those theaters willing to show it.) Just don’t expect it to be any good.

JoeMaderJoe Mader is managing director of the San Francisco-based 42nd Street Moon theater company and has previously written on theater and film for a variety of publications, including SF Weekly, the San Francisco Examiner, Salon, and The Hollywood Reporter.

 

 


TheInterview7THE INTERVIEW: Is That All There Is?

by Dennis Harvey

It’s rare that a movie becomes the stuff of serious national news, let alone a kind of international incident in itself. Who could have dreamt that political and idealogical waves would roil as a consequence of a willfully bad-taste Hollywood comedy intended to provide nothing more than some dumb fun for audiences uninterested in the usual year-end awards bait features and family entertainments?

Yet The Interview was defended, and its (now temporary) cancellation from theaters decried, as a “free speech” issue by conservatives who might never otherwise have noticed, let alone supported, a film by today’s primary creators of screen stoner comedies. What happened—should you have been hiding in a cave the last couple of weeks—is that forces unknown hacked into distributor Sony’s data banks, unleashing all kinds of private corporate intel into the world. This included employee records, as-yet-unreleased commercial products, and executive emails that proved particularly embarrassing, as they showed two prominent Hollywood honchos casually insulting stars, the President, and each other.

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It was pretty clear all this was a punishment for The Interview , in which Pineapple Express duo Seth Rogen and James Franco reunite as network TV talk-show lightweights who get an improbable opportunity to interview Kim Jong-Un—then are charged by the CIA with assassinating that current North Korean dictator during their visit. Such an outlandish, patently offensive conceit gained The Interview a certain “What the…?!” frisson from the moment it was announced. But who would really care? Aside from Kim Jong-Un and North Korea, of course. And who really cares what they [ital] think?

Well, now all of Hollywood does. Despite North Korea’s denials that it was behind the Sony attacks—which they pointedly approved of—the cyber-thefts and threats of terrorist violence should The Interview open as planned were a dictator’s dream come true. When major US theater chains began dropping the film out of safety and insurance concerns, Sony canceled its release. What’s more, it initially refused to accommodate theaters that wanted to show it anyway. And when Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse announced it would show 2004’s Team America: World Police—a satire with marionettes from the South Park guys that also satirized the North Korean dictatorship—instead, Paramount refused to let them have it, citing the same concerns. Finally, after a certain amount of public shaming and petitioning, Sony decided to open the film on Christmas as originally planned—but at about 100 independent theaters, while also making it available for rental on YouTube.

Did “the terrorists win,” if only briefly? Were Hollywood’s actions cowardly? In an era when the commercial film industry is already criticized for making too many bland, safe creative choices, will studios now worry even more about offending anyone? Will hostile nations, religious extremists and miscellaneous nutjobs feel empowered to scream bloody murder—or worse—anytime Hollywood does something they don’t approve of? After all, if isolated, poor, frequently-saber-rattling but impotent North Korea (which our government has more-or-less confirmed is behind the cyber-attacks) could have such a potent impact, what’s to stop every conspiracy-theory-obsessed, weapons-stockpiling Joe Blow? He’d certainly have less to lose than a starving nation for which it would have been suicide to risk Western retaliation by actually planting bombs in US theaters.

TheInterview9In fact, The Interview didn’t go unseen—before the storm fully broke, there were some advance screenings, including a benefit for the San Francisco Film Society at the Castro Theatre last month. Rogen and his co-director/scenarist Evan Goldberg were in attendance, holding forth onstage about their creative process and the film’s potential political ramifications—which they shrugged off—until informed they’d have to stop so the movie could begin. As one might expect from the men who gave you Superbad , Pineapple Express , last year’s This Is the End and other loose-limbed recent comedies, they seemed to take their work pretty lightly, though not ungratefully. The biggest revelation was when Rogen admitted that he hadn’t really been close to James Franco when they worked on Judd Apatow’s short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks fifteen years ago—in fact their now-celebrated bromance only began when Franco auditioned for Pineapple Express much later, discovering he had an aptitude for the duo’s brand of semi-improvisational, goofy dude comedy.

For a moment, The Interview went from being a movie relatively few people were all that excited about—certainly fewer than were waiting with baited breath for the final Hobbit installment, or the Broadway musical adaptation Into the Woods—to one that a whole lot of people were desperately curious about. (This week San Francisco writer Angela Watercutter wrote a Wired piece entitled “People Who Haven’t Seen The Interview Think It’s Totally Awesome.”) So, you want to know: What is The Interview like?

TheInterview10Well. It’s quite likely that one might watch The Interview today, and find it considerably more subversive, outrageous and daring than it seemed five weeks ago—after all, it now stands for so much more than mere tomfoolery from “the dudes who gave you Pineapple Express .” Yet for all the envelope-pushing outrageousness of its premise—how many comedies have made the assassination of a prominent living political leader, no matter how reprehensible, their plot hook?—it’s hard to ignore the fact that The Interview is ultimately deeply, disappointingly trivial. It goes way out on a conceptual limb, only to twiddle its thumbs (or perhaps more accurately, to smoke a doobie) there.

It actually is the movie it could have been for a first few minutes. It begins with a chorus of uniformed Koreans at a state function singing a rousing propaganda anthem—one that, thanks to English subtitles, we realize includes an awful lot of bizarre, vivid anti-American sentiments alongside its more conventional patriotic ones. Yet this inspired opening is pretty much the only time the movie seizes what should have been its richest opportunity, to satirize a cut-off nation’s force-fed delusional image of itself and even more warped perception of the outside world its average citizens are kept wholly ignorant about.

TheInterview11Instead, we get Franco and Rogen as Dave Skylark and Aaron Rapaport, respectively the vain, vacuous host and slightly more grounded producer of an Entertainment Tonight-type fluff celebrity news show. They’re besties content to skim along the glittering, moneyed surface of L.A. industry life, though Aaron does occasionally fret he’s wasting his potential doing this faux-journalism. But when they get an out-of-the-blue invitation to interview

The Supreme Leader—who turns out to be a big Skylark fan—they realize they’ve got the celebrity scoop of the century. This invite does not escape the notice of the CIA, which dispatches a comely agent (Lizzy Caplan) to seduce the duo into serving our government’s purposes. If they can poison Kim Jong Un (Randall Park), the desperate Democratic People’s Republic regime might topple entirely, liberating its citizens and ridding the world

of a dangerous, unpredictable bully. Of course, our heroes might not make it out alive to see that happy end result. But in his endless nitwit self confidence, Dave sees himself as a James Bond immune to failure.

This isn’t a bad conceit. But The Interview begins underserving it almost immediately, first by focusing overmuch on predictable, uninspired satire of US celebrity culture—the easiest of targets—then by turning its North Korea sojourn into simply more fodder for the bromantic, scatological, stonerish comedy Rogen and company have already fully mined on home turf. Skylark and Jong-Un bond over shared insecurities and love of American pop culture while the viewer wonders “Did we really come this far just to make Katy Perry jokes?” Yup. Meanwhile Rapaport experiences taboo attraction to seemingly humorless, loyal Party functionary Sook (Diane Bang), who eventually abets an attempted violent overthrow.

In Pineapple Express , the bloody action climax was surprising and somewhat exhilarating because of the sheer incongruity of our hapless stoner heroes getting mixed up in deadly criminal violence; that basic disconnect also worked in This Is the End , where they faced the mass destruction of a space-alien invasion. But the injustices and suffering endured by an entire nation under an almost universally condemned dictatorship are something else, and jokes about Kim Jong-Un’s bathroom habits or Seth Rogan having to hide things in his butt feel less stupid-funny than just stupid—not to mention irrelevant—within that context. The Interview might have pulled off its daring idea if it actually had the nerve to follow through with it. Instead, it basically discards any pretense of political satire in favor of a familiar juvenile humor strain that’s a cut above Adam Sandler, a cut below Judd Apatow, but in any case more interested in farts and gay-panic jokes than North Korea. (It’s telling that we almost never leave Kim Jong-Un’s palace, so the film blows all opportunities to play with the massive gap between state propaganda and the unseen lives of ordinary people.)

TheInterview12There are, to be sure, some laughs scattered around—these are talented, funny people, even if The Interview hardly shows them at their best. Surprisingly, however, what should have been the film’s stellar strength turns out to be its weakest link. However overexposed he may be otherwise (he’s made himself into a joke of undiscriminating, often pretentious prolificacy as an actor, director, pundit and quasi-performance artist/prankster), James Franco really did show an unexpected flair for comedy in Pineapple and a few other films since. Yet here, playing the sort of overpaid, bottom-feeding figure in popular culture that it’s all too easy to ridicule, he hits his obvious target with such strenuous farcical overemphasis that the performance immediately wears out its welcome. He clearly thinks he’s hilarious; all we get is the self-satisfaction, not the hilarity. Rogen does his usual amiably blustering thing; Park manages some deft, unexpected moments in a role that might easily have been played in the broadest terms. But Franco’s straining to be funniest man in the room overshadows them, and not in a good way.

Big, loud and brash in a typical current Hollywood mode, The Interview would be an ordinary misfire distinguished only by its WTF?! concept if said concept hadn’t stirred a vengeful real-world response whose repercussions we’ll no doubt be dealing with—or hearing about—for some time to come. It’s perhaps the ultimate example of a movie less interesting than the uninvited circumstances that have risen around it, a doodle that started a wave that turned into a tsunami wreaking havoc—on Sony, and who knows where else. Given that impact, it’s hard not to wish the cause of so much disturbance were more … worthy? Substantial? Memorable? Even just funnier? The Interview may have incited a political firestorm, yet the most disappointing thing about it is that it really doesn’t have a political thought in its fool head.

Dennis Harvey has been publishing film reviews since the era of the typewriter.  He’s a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and currently writes for Variety and Fandor’s Keyframe.


Going Deeper

The open letter from the Art House Convergence to Sony’s Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton that got the whole thing rolling back into theaters.

An article about previous cases of Hollywood studios bowing to intimidation tactics.

The creators of The Interview tweet about the triumph. Funny reader comments.

Other Movies to Consider

This whole controversy has reminded us of how relevant these movies are:

The Great Dictator by Charlie Chaplin

The Manchurian Candidate by John Frankenheimer

Team America World Police by Trey Parker


“Kim Jong-il had a vision for filmmaking that was an extension of his socialist ideology – to make films that propel the socialist agenda forward. He laid out his vision for filmmaking in two books, The Cinema and Directing (1987) and On the Art of the Cinema (1973), which formed the basis of compulsory reading for all filmmakers in the nation.”

Read about how Kim Jong Il made a Godzilla rip-off in the name of cinema art.

Some films about North Korea.

North Korean propaganda docs you can watch.

5 Films North Korea does not like.

Some more films the North Koreans might not like:

Secret State of North Korea

Welcome to North Korea

Crossing the Line-fascinating film about American defectors to NK who become involved in filmmaking.

Propaganda– a fake film that claimed to be smuggled out of North Korea.

Aim High in Creation!  (–The first half–Or maybe America wouldn’t like this one either)

Make your own North Korean film courtesy of the makers of Aim High in Creation!

The Vice Guide to North Koreathat ignores the horrors of NK for the ridiculous. (video)

Neither North nor South Korea like this one- Songs From the North

From the interview​:

​”The first thing they tell you as soon as you go through North Korean customs is that their newspapers have the leader’s picture, and you’re not supposed to sit on the newspaper. They think of these gestures as highly disrespectful. It’s a crime and it’s punishable.“​

 

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