Movie-A-Day: The Interview (2014)

That movie we almost got nuked for

Cast: James Franco as David Skylark, Seth Rogen as Aaron Rappaport, Lizzy Caplan as Agent Lacey, Diana Bang as Sook Yung Park

Premise: A vapid entertainment reporter and his producer unwittingly become CIA assassins after they manage to score an interview with Kim Jong-un.

In the history of greatest scams, Sony should be up there with Bernie Madoff. Not to say that the company is guilty of wrongdoing per se; their plan to to double-sell The Interview was good old fashioned salesmanship. Besides the obvious audience that the North Korean debacle created, their plan to release the film digitally meant that they got to cut out the theater middlemen. And then they STILL got the theatre profits once it proved to be lucrative to pass up. Kudos to Sony, i’m never one to knock the hustle. With that out of the way, is the film actually good?

As far as the cast, this film’s three principal characters range vastly in terms of quality. Rogen is the straight man for most of the film. Similar to Pineapple Express, he’s the funny everyman to anchor the film’s wackiness. While he dips into his usual dynamic when interacting with even straighter characters like Agent Lacey, he’s more often the reasonable counterpart to Franco.

Speaking of Franco he’s by far the weakest part of the film. Much of the plot is driven by his character being an idiot (Skylark doesn’t use the CIA-given bag, Skylark can’t see that Agent Lacey is seducing him, etc). Dumb characters aren’t a bad thing inherently, but Franco is awkward in the role. I wouldn’t say it’s due solely to his acting, but because the character is all-encompassingly stupid. When he gives a speech for his show’s 10th anniversary, he makes a terrible Lord of The Rings reference which ends with him saying “I’m like Gollum…(in Gollum’s voice) you’re my preccccious“. When he’s being briefed by Agent Lacey on how to assassinate Kim Jong-un, he discusses how he’d like to shoot him on camera with a gun since it would be the violent equivalent to a “money shot” in porn. Which ends with him demonstrating a bukkake scene. The operational logic seems to be that entertainment journalists are exceedingly shallow and stupid, but this character should still have an above average sense of social intelligence. It’s his fucking job. Instead, he’s portrayed as having his foot surgically-grafted to his mouth. Skylark should at least be able to present himself in a manner that seems appropriate at first before you consider it (similar to Michael Scott from The Office in the earlier seasons). This could’ve worked slightly better if Franco could play the character correctly. Franco’s area of humor has always been more in the ‘stoner’ realm. His delivery is loose and slow-paced, which is suited for a high-school slacker or a friendly pot-dealer. Being a entertainment show host requires Franco to be either more energetic (think of Billy Bush from Access Hollywood) or more deadpan to sell us on the character.

On the other end of quality, we have Park’s performance as Jong-un. Whereas Skylark is poorly defined character, Jong-un has some nuances based on public perception of the real man. He’s shy yet surprisingly affable, he’s into basketball and western music, and they even integrate how he reacts to his perceived effeminacy (which is integral to the plot). It’s admirable that, despite the film’s broad portrayal of…everything, it’s antagonist is portrayed as a human being. Ironically, Park has more chemistry with Franco than Rogen does. It helps that the film makes the effort to connect the personalities of Jong-un and Skylark whereas it just assumes we’d go along with the established relationship between Franco and Rogen without developing either character. Park’s introduction to the film vastly improves it’s second half.

The film’s plot is also a mixed bag. As mentioned, Skylark’s stupidity makes the film grate at first, but Jong-un’s affability allows for a believable plot twist. What’s interesting is that the film seems to toy with actually having a political message: is assassination always the best option when overthrowing a dictator? Is this handled well? I don’t want to spoil the ending but I would say…no, but this is possibly by design. I’d say it’s appropriate for a film that doesn’t take it’s politics seriously. Beyond that, the the plot is usual fare for raunchy comedies: sex, drugs, violence.  Rinse and repeat.

The film’s portrayal of actual Koreans is sadly sparse. Aside from Jong-un, the only major character is Sook, who’s the love interest for Rogen. Most of her humor relies on us finding cute asian women saying things like “butthole” and “vagina” funny. She’s mostly there for shallow humor, though she does become more important in the second half of the film. It’s obvious that the film thoughts about North Korea came solely from an American perspective, since there’s almost no Korean presence in it.

Overall, this is a pretty run-of-the-mill comedy. I’d give the first half a C- due to the lack of humor and chemistry between Rogen and Franco, and a C+ due to Jong-un’s introduction and the strengthening of Franco’s character. Almost every other aspect of the film is basic stock for raunchy comedies.

My Rating: One Nazi fist from Charlie Chaplin (in a much better protest film)

Stray Thoughts

  • One thing this film does that I absolutely hate is use rap music for all of it’s “big” scenes. I get that the genre lends itself to being used for exaggerating already exaggerated moments, but this film uses rap music everytime we see women or cars or people getting shot. Try to limit this to two scenes max, Hollywood.

Gravity Review

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The film Star Trek (2009) opens with a federation starship being attacked by an enemy ship. During the attack, a hole is blown through the ship as a crew member is walking by. She tries in vain to hold on while screaming hysterically, but physics win out and she sucked into the void. We last see her flailing around noiselessly in an exterior shot of the ship. The scope of the battle is so large that she’s barely noticeable on the screen; a nameless ensign adrift in the depths of the cosmos. For a film with as many memorable visuals as Star Trek,  this is one that stood out in my mind. It’s not a particularly thrilling moment (quite the opposite in fact). It’s horrifically stark: whatever emotion we’re supposed to feel is as fleeting as the scene itself. Oddly, a film that uses outer space as a site of fantasy begins with a scene expressing its cold reality. This is a concept rarely touched upon in film. One the few to do so is Gravity.

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Gravity manages to take a story as simple as ” hero gets lost in a foreign land ” and take it to its logical extreme. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien, Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban), the film focuses on  bio-medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) who’s first space trip to the Hubble Telescope goes awry when debris from a Russian anti-satellite test results in massive destruction near Earth’s orbit.

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This results in the destruction of the shuttle and most of its crew, leaving Stone and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), to figure out how to survive.

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As in real life, being in space is portrayed as oddly both expansive and claustrophobic The promos for Gravity show an extreme close-up of Sandra Bullock. The camera slowly pulls out as we see her spacesuit and her tumbling through space. This frightening visual encapsulates the tone of the film perfectly. Most non-fantasy films dealing with space travel (Apollo 13, Armageddon) never deal with what being in space is like. It’s just a cool backdrop.  The characters rarely reflect on space. If they do, it’s only to say how beautiful it is. In this film, outer space is portrayed as honestly as possible. It’s nothingness. It’s cold (we see Bullock’s breath while in a vessel). Despite not being explicitly a horror film, Gravity manages to create an unnerving atmosphere when it wants to. Imagine being lost in space? Not only will you die obviously, but your body will forever be adrift (a fear played with by the promos of Stone tumbling in space). The only object of ” beauty ” in the film is the Earth, which is maddeningly out of reach for Stone.

Because the protagonist is explicitly NOT an astronaut, a large amount of drama comes m how she’s as disoriented as the audience would be in that situation. This is illustrated when the shuttle’s crew is introduced. Kowalski is casually reflecting on personal stories and the beauty of the Earth, whereas Stone is too uncomfortable to take her eyes off her work.

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Stone’s space suit becomes indicative of Stone’s limitations. Rather than just being a costume, it’s significance is constantly alluded to. She’s constantly worried about its oxygen supply. Several shots are taken from inside the helmet so we can see her limited vision. Her suit is her tether; keeping her alive and also hindering her. This is the film’s overlying theme: the tag line states “Don’t let go”. For a film about space, freedom is seemingly unobtainable.

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As much as I hate the term, this film could be accurately described as ” hauntingly beautiful “. The camera (which I’m not quite sure existed given all the CGI) manages to take on the properties of the film’s environment perfectly. We are rarely given a sense of direction as the camera slowly drifts through each scene. It obviously works to allow the audience the feeling of space itself. As mentioned before, this at times whimsical, but more often purposely disorienting. This film also bears the signatures of its director, who is an expert at extremely long mobile takes (as seen in films like Children of Men (2006). The introduction of Stone and Kowalski, the revelation of the debris, and their separation from the shuttle all takes place in ONE continuous shot. Holy shit. The film makes sure to almost never separate us from the action, so we get the sense we’re in just as much trouble as the protagonists are. This is the type of filmmaking that almost makes me tear up.

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Given that this is a film with only two principal actors (with the subjective perception of one), Gravity is extremely intimate despite its vast backdrop. Bullock’s acting serves the film, but I can see people having mixed reactions. Bullock’s niche in Hollywood has always been “tough chick who’s secretly feminine” or “smart chick who’s secretly feminine”. She’s the “anti-glamor” girl. As such, when she’s in vulnerable mode, it’s much more understated than say, Julia Roberts. This keeps her character from being a damsel-in-distress IN SPACE. This also means that she might not have the overt reactions some audiences need to feel the emotional weight of the film. Personally, I think her performance fits the character’s personality. A tragedy in Stone’s past has made her a checked-out workaholic. Her job is the only thing that she lives for, which even factors into how she got stranded in the first place. When she deals with stress, it’s more about nervous tics than obvious emotion. For example, one of the most terrifying moments in the film occurs when she gets caught in the debris storm while working on a spacecraft. Her reaction? She ignores it and begins humming to herself awkwardly. That is a brilliant way for us to feel scared for her without diminishing the character. She’s a ball of nerves but she doesn’t break down, which makes us root for her.

Final Verdict

Gravity is one of the few films I would call beautiful in every respect. The effects are gorgeous. The acting is moving. The story is simple yet powerful. I honestly can’t see how someone couldn’t like this film. I guess the only reasons not to see it is if you get motion sickness ( seriously ) or if you just hate Sandra Bullock. Otherwise, see this film.

Don Jon Review

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Don Jon is a great example why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The promos of the film build it up to be a shallow sex comedy capitalizing on the social punching bag that is “Guido” culture ( the protagonist is from Staten Island by the way, so fuck you Jersey haters ). Once it opens, it’s obvious that despite the marketing campaign, it’s actually an affectionate satire on American media that includes the types of films it appears to be.

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Joseph Gordon Levitt  plays the titular Jon, who’s prowess with the ladies leads his friends to call him “Don Jon”. His nickname is a pun on real life 16th century “libertine” ( i.e.  manwhore ) Don Juan. But despite his luck with ladies, Jon is bored with promiscuity. Things seem to turn around when during one of his regular club outings he meets Barbara Sugarman ( Scarlett Johansson ) who stands out from the rest ( i.e. doesn’t put out on the first night ). He then proceeds  to and succeeds in wooing her, but ends up in a relationship that isn’t entirely perfect.

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The first element of Jon’s characterization we are given is his obsession with internet porn. He’s not much into ACTUAL sex, despite having lots of it. This is very novel for a mainstream film: most films that acknowledge pornography do so to establish that those who watch it can’t get laid ( Superbad, Kick-Ass ). Having a character who gets laid A LOT and still watches pornography opens up a conversation about its mainstream appeal. Jon doesn’t just watch porn, he ritualizes it. The film’s portrayal of porn addiction is both hilarious and troubling. Jon’s laptop is on a mostly barren black table with candles surrounding it, turning it into a more romantic object than his actual sex partners. Rather than his porn-watching occurring in the absence of sex, he follows up sexual encounters with porn, which he finds superior to the “real thing”. Needless to say, the film is pretty hard on watching pornography ( porn-I mean pun unintended ).

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The film is critical of not only porn, but media as a whole. The opening scene shows an intense, “ hypercut ”, mishmash of cartoons ( primarily ” Red Hot Riding Hood ” ) , music videos ( primarily Sisqo’s “ Thong Song ” ), and pornography. This segways into Jon’s commentary on sex and his love of porn, communicating the film’s primary “antagonist”. As Jon himself alludes to, part of his porn routine isn’t just watching porn, it’s watching anything that can gratify him. American media IS porn. And that doesn’t just mean rappers sliding credit cards through strippers’ asses in music videos ( yes, that really happened ). It means sports that allow Jon’s father a reprieve from the drudgery of family meals. It means social platforms that allow Jon’s sister a reprieve from interacting at all. It means romantic comedies that-wait a minute, this film IS  a romantic comedy!

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Yes, the film focuses it’s critical eye own genre. During a scene at a movie theater, we see a character view a romantic film in the same way Jon views his porn: through a intense mishmash of familiar scenes  that seem to have an orgasmic effect on the viewer. The film presents the American romance genre as being vapid and indulgent ( like porn ). The cinematography supports this through Michael Bay style focus on the act of sex itself. Sex scenes are quick and given a “stylish” blue tint. The always have an angle that emphasizes the visceral nature of sex rather than anything intimate. Scarlett Johansson’s hotness also serves the porn nature of the film-it gives a great excuse for several longing shots of her body in tight, revealing outfits. Y’know, for plot reasons.

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The beauty of this concept is that it allows for the film to cater to the demographic it pokes fun at (at least initially). College bros and working class joes will eat up the film’s raunchy comedy. The film’s sexual humor is pretty immediate without much innuendo, as reflective of the lowbrow nature of the protagonist. Jon himself is a lovable lech who manages to stay relatable. In addition, dat Scarlett Johansson. If taken as just a sex comedy, it works fairly well. If taken as a satire, it still works well, but has many issues.

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I’m 700 words into a review and I haven’t touched upon the Armani Exchange wearing elephant in the room: is this a film about guidos? In a word: no. Let me elaborate through comparison: in 1977 a seminal American film debuted which centered on a young Italian in his late teens with no sense of the future. He engages in mindless debauchery with his friends while hitting up the most popular night spots with a steady supply of drugs and sex. It serves as a deconstruction of popular youth culture by painting it as often destructive and hollow ( One of the main characters commits suicide because he got his girl pregnant ). What’s the name of this film?

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That’s right, “ that film about John Travolta dancing “ is actually a harsh criticism of the very culture it seems to glamorize. The characters of the film are all working class white kids in the 70’s, so of course their socializing is going to reflect that demographic (hence the disco). However, one could transpose that narrative into any vapid youth culture of the moment like say, 90’s gangsta rap. But unfortunately, since most people take only a glance at any film, it became a film about disco culture instead of commentary on that generation of youth. Don Jon has already suffered similar pigeonholing; the Italian American One Voice Coalition has commented that Don Jon is another work painting Italian American culture in a negative light. Because lord knows Jersey Shore hasn’t already done that.

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While Don Jon is clearly drawing from “ guido ” culture ( hairstyle, excessive exercise, etc ), to dismiss it as only that is incorrect. Not only is Jon portrayed and written humanely by Levitt, most of the film’s critical eye seems to be more towards the way he interacts with culture and not so much his culture itself. Like Saturday Night Fever, Jon is swept up in the culture of the day, in his case; Jersey Shore. His mannerisms, family, and friends all manage to get enough nuance to save the character from being a negative caricature. What is “wrong” with Jon is the shallow routine in which these elements are contained. The majority of the film is taken up by Jon going through the same events over and over: masturbation-gym-road rage-church-family dinner-club-dance-sex-masturbation. It’s the ” Gym-Tan-Laundry ” lifestyle taken too far. He does all these things without much consideration for why he’s doing them or if he should modify them somewhat. This lends to the overall vapid nature of his life.

If I had to say what aspect of the film hurts Don Jon the most, it’s the fact that its concept might be too daring for its methods. This is a romantic comedy that is deconstructive of both mainstream media and romance. That’s like being an anti-semitic rabbi. Friction occurs when the film’s novel narrative goals are carried by fairly stock devices. For example, Johansson’s character and relationship with Jon becomes a bit less compelling  once I “ got ” what the film’s major thematic conflict was. Rather than being interested in her character, she became all to familiar. There were still laughs and some nice acting moments, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where things are heading. In addition, it’s obvious Levitt didn’t really trust in the film’s legibility, and thus we have a few scenes verbally expositing the film’s themes, a big no-no in visual media. A character almost literally points to the “media is pornography”  argument by the end of the second act, when it had already been quite overt. Finally, we can see the “ Hollywood ” influence in its ending, which could be viewed as a bit hypocritical given the film’s major themes. As Levitt’s first film effort, I can imagine that his ambitions outstripped what could be done in a marketable film. Don Jon has few surprises beyond the first act, and I remember going through the 2nd act and part of the 3rd  knowing what to expect.

Final Verdict

All in all, despite a few issues, I enjoyed Don Jon thoroughly. As a first film effort, it’s quite good. Watch it if you like sex jokes, are aware and skeptical of romantic comedy, and want to support original ideas. Don’t watch if you’re a bit prudish or are in a bad relationship (this will make you question some shit).

For more thoughts on Romance:

The Unfortunate Undeath of Chivalry: Implications of Romance In Hollywood

The Lois Lane Effect