Category Archives: Movies

So, let’s talk about The Interview…

SONY DSC

Seth Rogen at Butt-Numb-a-Thon in Austin, TX, on December 13th, 2014. This is the last time The Interview was screened, and two days before studios started refusing to play the film.

Over the last few days, a movie became the biggest news story in America. Thanks to hackers who held Sony hostage with embarrassing e-mails, confidential employee information, and eventually terrorist threats, The Interview has been pulled from distribution. As of the time of this writing, speculation from the FBI is that the hackers are associated with North Korea.

But I bet you’re wondering: is the movie any good? Is this movie worth all the furor?

Last Saturday, I was at a 24-hour movie festival in Austin, TX called The Butt-Numb-a-Thon. In a nutshell, we show up to the theater with no idea of what films will play. We could be seeing premieres, vintage movies, or, well, just about anything. And one of the things that scrolled in front of our eyes was The Interview.

This was two days before the terrorism threats hit the headlines. The screening I saw was feted with confetti cannons, a live appearance and Q&A by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and 20-foot-tall banners bearing Kim Jong-Un’s face. Everyone received rocket-shaped sippie cups bearing logos of the film. And, of course, we got the film itself.

The Interview is… okay. It has problems, but I laughed a lot, and the audience around me sure laughed a lot, too.

The general plot, as I’m sure you’ve already heard, is this: Seth Rogen and James Franco play bumbling journalists who somehow score a Frost/Nixon-style interview with Kim Jong-Un. The US government intervenes and asks them to assassinate the North Korean leader. Of course, when they arrive in North Korea, wacky hijinks ensue.

I am generally lukewarm on Seth Rogen, mostly because his manchild schtick wears a little thin on me. I like the subjects he picks as targets for comedy, but the reality of his comedy rarely lives up to its promise. The Interview bears a lot of these same problems, but it succeeds more than most other Rogen vehicles I’ve seen.

Where The Interview truly wins is in its performances. The actors make this comedy 100% worth watching, even though not all the jokes land well. James Franco and Seth Rogen have amazing chemistry, and watching the two of them riff off each other is fantastic. But even better is Randall Park, who is hitting for the bleachers as Kim Jong-Un. Park takes over every scene, playing Kim Jong-Un as a sort of meek superfan of Franco’s character. (During the Q&A after the film, Rogen and Goldberg talked about how Park’s performance choices dramatically informed the plot of the film, to the point where the film’s best script choices were made because of him.)

Where The Interview stumbles is in the political commentary, which is puddle-deep and not really engaged with outside of the dialogue. It’s clear that the filmmakers didn’t really know what to do with the film once it arrives in North Korea, perhaps because the real North Korea is such an information vacuum. The film is better when it’s poking fun at American media and when it’s simply playing with its characters. This surely is no Great Dictator or Dr. Strangelove, but perhaps it wasn’t really meant to be.

Also, a lot of the comedy is really dumb. I mean, really really dumb. There are more butt jokes in this movie than there are turtlenecks in Love Actually. So many butt jokes. Anyway, dumb comedy is not my thing. If that’s your thing, The Interview would probably make you laugh more than it made me laugh, and you would laugh a lot.

So, given that the film is okay, is it worth fighting for?

YES. ABSOLUTELY.

Part of protecting freedom means protecting the stupid shit as well as the grand ideas. If Sony smothers the film entirely just so it can take the insurance money, I hope some office patriot leaks the film online.

Fantastic Fest Day #8

It took me a while to recover from Fantastic Fest, which is why my post about the final day comes to the Internet more than a week later. The final party was a lot of everything (including a booze luge, slap shots, a water balloon slingshot, real free tattoos, and a live donkey), and it was followed the next day by a 18-hour drive across the country to get back home. Then I went back to work. So, I was a little tired this week.

Anyway, I did see three additional movies prior to the onslaught…

Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD is a fairly straightforward documentary about the British comics company that brought us characters like Judge Dredd and a whole slew of British comics talent. The film does a nice job bringing context to the tone of 2000AD comic books, and brings some nice visual flair by animating some of the comic art. Also, comics fans will see a lot of familiar faces being interviewed — Neil Gaiman, Brian Bolland, etc. (No Alan Moore, but nobody gets Alan Moore.)

Alleluia is a Belgian horror film that I ultimately did not care for. The film has a strong concept: a woman is urged by a friend to try a dating site, and meets a man who turns out to be a small-time crook, who manipulates women into giving him money. This woman is taken in by his ruse, but has fallen in love with him, so she meets him again and says she will help him con other women, as long as she can stay with him. The two then begin conning other women into giving money to this guy… but the problem is that the main lady gets jealous and starts murdering their marks. So, that’s pretty interesting. The problem is, I never truly got what was driving the characters, and I eventually just didn’t give a damn about what was going on.

And, finally… Jerry and I stepped up and braved the 5-1/2 hour directors’ cut of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. I’d endured Antichrist just a few weeks prior, so my choice to go into that theater was driven more of an “I’ll take that dare” mentality rather than a “I want to see that movie” mentality. That said… I liked Nymphomaniac more than I thought I would. I don’t think I’d say I enjoyed it, because I don’t think Nymphomanic is really a movie you enjoy. I did find the film to be consistently interesting, though, and I’ll admit that it is the movie that I’ve thought about most since the festival ended. The movie is a bit of a mess; it’s all over the place in terms of focus and idealism, and it seems that von Trier’s brain spilled out every random thought he has about everything onto the screen. It almost plays out like a series of short films. Some work, some don’t. Most of the stuff that works is in the first half, where the film seems to have a sense of humor about itself.

The film does have two scenes that are marvelous, one in the first half and one in the second. Both involve actors that appear nowhere else in the film. The first involves Uma Thurman as a scorned wife, and the second involves Jamie Bell as a professional sadist. Both actors are magic in these scenes.

Oh, and if you’re thinking of watching Nymphomaniac just because of the hardcore sex scenes, you’re probably not going to get what you expect. Yes, the sex is explicit, but it is mostly depicted as awkward or uncomfortable in some way. This is a pretty unerotic film, even if it is all about sexuality. One of the scenes even gives Antichrist a run for its money in terms of brutality.

Honestly, the best part of Nymphomaniac was enduring it with a friend, because we wound up killing three vats of popcorn and twelve bottles of beer during our rollercoaster ride. Our stomachs hated us later, but we soldiered through, and we are proud.

Nymphomaniac didn't have a happy ending.

Nymphomaniac didn’t have a happy ending.

Jerry, post-Nymphomaniac. By the way, the Alamo Drafthouse has great popocorn.

Jerry, post-Nymphomaniac. By the way, the Alamo Drafthouse has great popocorn.

Fantastic Fest Day #7

Shrew's Nest Q&A - Esteban Roel

Esteban Roel, director of Shrew’s Nest

On the penultimate day of Fantastic Fest, I thankfully hit my second wind. I was still exhausted, but I’d gone past the zombie state into a sort of zen master peace.

It is by movies alone that I set my mind in motion.

One of my film slots yesterday was taken up by the animated shorts program, so I only got to see four features. It was still a solid day, though.

Shrew’s Nest is an incredible Whatever Happened to Baby Jane-style thriller from Spain. The plot centers around two sisters, the elder of whom has severe agoraphobia and thus cannot leave their apartment. As the film slowly reveals the damaged background of the two women, a handsome male neighbor falls down the stairs, and the eldest sister takes him in… and makes sure he cannot leave. The film is completely character driven, and it is grounded by a masterful performance by Macarena Gomez. Great stuff.

Open Windows is the new film by Nacho Vigalondo, the man who brought the world Timecrimes. Open Windows is the story of a regular-guy movie blogger who becomes wrapped up in a complicated scheme that somehow involves the actress that he blogs about. The narrative conceit of the film is that it takes place entirely on one computer screen, and the plot plays out across different windows on the screen. The film feels artificial and stilted until you relax into the style of storytelling, then it becomes a solid little thriller. And by the end, you learn that the things that were off-putting at first were actually necessary and intentional. Open Windows is, from beginning to end, ambitious and clever.

(Incidentally, I was an extra for Open Windows when it shot in Austin about two years ago. The back of my head and my camera are visible in the scene filmed at the Alamo Drafthouse. Thanks to Elijah Wood’s presence in the film, my camera now officially has a Kevin Bacon Number of 2.)

Horns is the latest film from the director of High Tension, and thankfully I can say it’s a better film than High Tension. That’s not to say that it’s great, but it’s engaging and has an interesting premise. Daniel Radcliffe stars as a young man in a small logging town who stands accused of murdering his beloved girlfriend. As he struggles to clear his name, he suddenly wakes up one morning with horns on his head. It turns out that the horns somehow persuade people to tell him the absolute truth about what’s on their mind, so he goes on a mission to find the real murderer. The film is funnier than I expected it to be, though the tone is sometimes uneven. The movie is at its best when it revels in its strange premise.

It Follows is a bizarre, simple, and well-executed horror flick. A teen girl finds that, after having sex with a boy she likes, she finds she is being stalked by an entity that walks after her at all times. She learns that the boy gave the monster to her, and now she must pass it on to someone else (via sex), or else the monster will catch her and kill her. Yes, it’s an obvious allegory for STDs. Yes, it’s a clever premise that allows teenagers to sleep with a lot of other teenagers. Yes, it’s a bit overwrought. However, the film is smarter than expected, the performances are good, and it’s well directed enough that an entity that simply walks at you becomes pretty scary. It Follows ultimately left me with a lot of nagging questions about plot holes and the logic of the creature (do condoms prevent the walking STD monster?), so it wasn’t completely satisfying, but it certainly held my attention throughout.

Now I get to head to the theater, where I will be treated (?) to the five-and-a-half hour director’s cut of Lars von Trier’s Nymph()maniac. If I don’t return, bury my ashes and salt the earth.

Fantastic Fest Day #6

Lost Soul Q&A

Middle: David Gregory, director of Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau. Right: Richard Stanley, director of Hardware and Dust Devil.

I was so exhausted yesterday that by the time I drove to the theater, I realized I just couldn’t handle another movie. So I skipped the first film and slept in my car for two hours. When I woke up, I checked Twitter and saw the buzz on the film and realized I’d made the right choice.

The films I did see yesterday were half old and half new. Thanks to the festival’s premier of Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, the festival had also gotten hold of some 35mm prints of some of the craziest examples of Cannon’s oeuvre. So, I happily spent the first half of my day watching those.

Cannon’s insane Death Wish 3 screened from an absolutely pristine 35mm print, which was struck a few years ago by MGM. That means I may have seen a better copy of the film than most audiences who have ever seen it. That’s a bit strange, because Death Wish 3 can only be described as “it’s not good, but it’s awesome.” It’s one of the pinnacle achievements of ludicrous 1980s violence, where Charles Bronson walks around with a hand cannon, blowing away thousands of anonymous thugs. Also, the movie seems to have something against ice cream. And there’s a bad guy with a reverse mohawk, which makes me wonder if the filmmakers had ever seen a real street thug or if they were just making shit up as they went along. Did I mention that the apartment building filled with gentle, elderly neighbors also happens to harbor two Browning M1919 machine guns? Yup.

This screening could only be followed up by Cannon’s equally insane Ninja III: The Domination, in which an aerobic’s instructor (!) is possessed (!!) by the soul of an evil ninja (!!!). The film’s script reads like a checklist of what the filmmakers thought was the cultural touchstones of 1984 American culture: legwarmers, Jazzercise, ninjas, lasers, V8 juice, and big hair (both on the lead actress’ head and on the lead actor’s back). Ninja III is exquisite in its inexplicability. Why does the lead character have a pay phone inside her apartment? Why is there a scene with a possessed arcade game? Oh, and did I mention that the V8 juice appears as a sex aid?

I then left the grand madness of the Cannon Films archive to watch something new: The Guest, the latest film from the writer and director who brought us You’re Next. The plot starts with an American soldier, who shows up on the doorstep of the family who lost their son to battle. He soon ingratiates himself into their lives, but something is… off. The film contains the lively characters, wry humor, and great tension seen in You’re Next, and adds a magnetic performance by Downton Abbey‘s Dan Stevens. Also, while the film doesn’t directly reference the 1980s, it has that same verve. It opens in limited release this week, so I recommend getting to a theater to catch it.

(After the film, I met Simon Barrett, who wrote the film. I told him how much I loved You’re Next and how much I liked how he wrote female characters. We got into a great conversation about the dearth of good female characters in genre films, and about how it’s slowly getting better. He said he wrote You’re Next after seeing a string of films at Fantastic Fest 2010 where women were all treated horribly.)

I capped the night with a New Zealand film called Housebound, and it immediately became one of my favorites of this whole festival. Great horror-comedy is hard to come by, and this one hits the sweet spot. The plot revolves around a young female hoodlum, who is confined by an ankle bracelet to her overbearing mother’s giant rural house. The mother believes the house has been haunted since before she moved in 20 years prior; the daughter doesn’t quite buy that, but can’t explain the house’s weird noises. The neighborhood parole officer happens to be into paranormal investigation… and the story goes from there. The film goes to places you don’t expect, the characters are vivid, and the script has a lot of pop to it. The film is a hoot, and I look forward to showing it to friends back home.

Fantastic Fest Day #5

Fantastic Feud

I don’t really know what day it is anymore. The concept of time is foggy. My body shuffles forward, as if pulled by an external force. My eyes scan constantly, seeking any movie screen within their view, like junkies seeking their next fix.

Three more days to go!

Anyway, I spent much of yesterday in front of things that weren’t feature films. I sat through the festival’s slate of horror shorts, and then witnessed the barely-controlled juggernaut of chaos that is a live game show named Fantastic Feud. As a result, I got five hours of sleep instead of the usual Fantastic Fest Four.

…it wasn’t enough.

Anyway, I did see some good feature-length stuff yesterday!

Force Majeure is the story of a Swedish family, who travel to the French Alps for a ski vacation. While dining at an outdoor restaurant, an avalanche skids down the mountain and hits the building. When the snow-fog clears and it is evident that no damage happened, the mother learns that the father ran for his life, abandoning her and the kids. This causes the rest of the vacation to be very uncomfortable for all involved. Force Majeure is a quiet, dryly humorous examination of masculinity and family, and definitely worth a look.

The Babadook is a striking horror movie, wrapped around the story of a single mother and her difficult seven-year-old son. The child becomes convinced that a boogeyman is lurking in their home, to the point where his constant obsession and weapons-crafting gets him thrown out of school and his mother out of her tiny social circle. Eventually, it’s just the two of them in their house together, and the seams of their existence start to unravel. Is the boy a monster, is the mother a monster, or is there a third monster-monster? The movie is excellent right up to the ending, which seems to be the correct ending for the story buried underneath an incorrect tone. It’s too bad, because the entire film is an intense fictional examination of the experience of living with mental illness, coupled with astonishing performances from the two leads.

The third and final film I saw yesterday was Free Fall, a Hungarian film that is more of a string of surreal vignettes than a straight narrative. The film starts out with an elderly woman leaping off the top of her seven-story apartment building, only to unceremoniously strike the pavement below. (Don’t worry, she’s fine. She does this every night.) The film then proceeds to tell the story happening within the apartments she passed on the way down. This includes things like a dinner party with the occasional nude person, a yoga class for what seems to be X-Men, a lot of Saran Wrap, a kid with a cow problem… well, it’s hard to explain. Whatever is going on here, it’s beautifully filmed, often funny, and never boring. The film also yielded the single most Fantastic Fest-y scene I’ve witnessed yet this year. When it happened, I could not stop giggling at the audience reaction. It was glorious.