07 January 2015

First Impressions: The Interview

Now that the controversy has died down and 2014's Version of 9/11 North Korean-style never happened, let'st talk about The Interview (2014). I do have many opinions on the nature of this release and the inherent international controversy it spurred, possibly bringing down a corporate media giant and threatening American democracy and freedom of speech, which you can all read here. Right now, I really just want to talk about the merits of the film itself, and as such, SPOILERS will be lurking everywhere.
Not even one play of "Teenage Dream."

Normally I only chat about movies I have seen in theaters, and as a result, this blog is actually a throbbing living record of every film I've seen at the cinema since 2009. Look at that! I thought that The Interview was a special case, though. If you just got back from Antarctica, The Interview caused a bit of a stir in its real-life subject matter, North Korea, who purportedly sponsored, or at least did nothing to stop, cyber-terrorists from both hacking into SONY and making threats against American movie theaters. After a long, tense couple of days where Obama got involved and I even spoke with representatives from the BBC, SONY released the film in some select theaters along with Video-On-Demand. So, naturally, seeing it the way I did (illegally downloaded once, later bought on YouTube) was the main way of seeing this thing.

The VOD release is of course, huge. It has so far made about $31 million, as of January 4th, with an additional $5 million from its limited theatrical release. We can also estimate around 2 million or so illegal downloads. Which is actually like $20 million additional dollars it could have made in some legal avenue. Is this how we are going to have to measure movies from now on? It's how we always should have to determine a film's true influence and money-making potential - we seem unnaturally obsessive with Box Office, particularly limited to Domestic take.

Yet, until now VOD has always been somewhat inconsequential. Sure there might be a million or two to be made here and there (and lest we remember, if I made a million dollars in one weekend, I'd be set for the rest of my life), but that's never that much compared to a mainstream release's final take. With The Interview, though, this is hugely significant. I've been wanting more films to take this route for years. Why not bypass theaters for a home experience that is better in nearly every way?

I'm not totally anti-cinema. I love the cinema. There's movies like Gravity (2013) or Interstellar (2014) or let's even get into Goodbye to Language 3D (2014) that should only be seen in theaters. These are really all novelty uses of the experience though. There is something to the formality of getting dressed, paying for a ticket, and sitting in the dark with a bunch of real live strangers sharing a communal experience.

At the same time, though, a flick like Snowpiercer (2014) or Why Don't You Play in Hell (2014) won't even play in a theater near me. And I care less about the formality of seeing dumb blockbusters like The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies (2014) in the theater than seeing something that engrosses itself in the medium like Birdman (2014). Jeez, I've really got 2014 on my mind. Anyway, my point is that just like everything else in this world, there's not really a black and white answer. There is a place for theatrical releases and there is a place for VOD. I am more irritated when we ignore the use of technology that can service a population that desires the product and can't get it any other way.

The Interview at once legitimizes the VOD medium, which seems otherwise reserved for what used to be a graveyard for Direct-to-Video, then Direct-to-DVD releases. Time will tell if the extremely extenuating circumstances of The Interview's release is a fluke or the start of a trend. If only it ingratiated a significant chunk of the population into experimenting with on-demand where they had not previously, which makes them more apt towards similar future behavior, I'm satisfied. Again, VOD isn't the best for everyone, but I would love an age where theatrical releases and VOD happen simultaneously. Believe me, I'd rather have sit at home and watched Wrath of the Titans (2012) comfortably by myself than when I saw it alone in theaters one lonely Sunday afternoon. Friends don't always want to see movies with you! Especially shitty ones! The lava man looked cool.

So the great irony is that although The Interview may have set precedent for American stances (or not) on securing artistic freedoms of speech from foreign (or domestic) threats, and could possibly have pushed the interview into new and exciting distribution directions, the film itself is so fucking stupid and silly. And really, not that great.

I will admit a lot of it has grown on me in the weeks since I saw it. And I saw it, of course, Christmas Eve, and then again about a week ago last Monday. I may even see it again, it's on my YouTube. Every time I saw it I was also in a big group, which means the actual eyeballs attached to this thing are probably a bit more inflated than those numbers up there indicate. I would say I averaged about groups of five, which would indicate that 50 million people saw this thing. That seems unlikely. But it was probably a good number.

As far as comedies go, it's not particularly intelligent or gut-bustingly funny. A lot of jokes fall flat, especially in the first twenty minutes of the film (that whole James Franco SmĂ©agol impression defies understanding. The flick picks up once it hits the DPRK, and it is cautious to make fun of the nation's leader more than its people. If anything, though, it shows the evil dictator as too much of a sympathetic likable bro, so that his eventual death is a bit more unnerving. I suppose the assumption here is that you're supposed to remember that he's a maniac who enslaves and oppresses his own people in a systemic totalitarian government that worships him as a god. The Interview drops occasional reminders about this, but it generally really makes us side with the lovable little dumpling, just as he cozies up to James Franco's Dave Skylark.

Franco, by the way, completely saves this movie. I've never seen a comedic actor throw himself more into a role as super-expressive or as dumb as this. He's a revelation in every scene. His appearance on the Razzie nomination shortlist is completely unfounded, but the Razzies honor the "worst" movies of the year exactly like the Oscars honor the "best." It's just a bunch of people griping about really obvious movies so that it doesn't actually come off as mean-spirited, but it's no better than the self-congratulatory ceremony it supposes to parody. Franco is funnier here than any other comedic actor of 2014. Okay, note that difference between "best" and "funniest" again, folks. He just strikes an aggressive sort of timing, idiocy, latent homosexuality, and on-the-mark cultural aphorisms that make this perfect character.

I also love how Rogen plays the straight man to Franco's wackiness here, just like Pineapple Express (2008). It's a bold move as co-director this time around, to give up the far funnier parts to all the people around him, in order to make the best possible movie. It's not something you could ever see Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey doing, and it sort of gives you hope for Rogen's future - that he'll keep evolving and writing roles that suit him, or give up acting entirely, rather than push himself in a direction that's forced or unnatural.
The war will be worth it.

Other subtle highlights include a Shaun of the Dead (2004)-like foreshadowing, one of the better uses of a Katy Perry song in a movie (four times. They play "Firework" FOUR times, folks), and a delicate insight into a dangerous nation-state. The only major problem I have is how Seth Rogen used his magic white man penis to melt the foreign ice queen, which is a staple of a lot of James Bond movies that I can see being subtly parodied here. The Korean chick has her own agency, though, so I dunno. Maybe it's okay. It certainly helped the plot. Like I said, this isn't really intelligent comedy, but it was never trying to be, and the pedestal it found itself on after all the controversy was impossible to reach.

I would recommend The Interview. I will see it again. Maybe this week. I think it is growing on me in way that some other films have done in the past. I hated Anchorman (2004) when I first saw it. I did! I preferred Napoleon Dynamite (2004) at the time, which I also saw alone in theaters. At the very least I don't think we'll forget The Interview any time soon, and if we do, it'll be a sad time for America, the film distribution industry, and James Franco. Or maybe we'll just always think about that flash in the pan Christmas of 2014 as one of the more bizarre Hollywood stories that didn't change shit.

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