The Interview

James Franco and Seth Rogen in The Interview

Like an Inspector Clouseau party that’s forgotten to invite Peter Sellers, The Interview has a gigantic gaping hole where the comedy should be. Unsure if it’s a satire on modern entertainment or a Get Smart-style caper comedy set in the People’s Republic of North Korea, it squats uneasily between the two, leaving its game bromantic stars, James Franco and Seth Rogen, mouthing like beached fish in one unfunny set-up after another.

The film arrives after the most brilliantly organised bit of internet brouhaha since The Blair Witch Project. First, Sony’s servers were hacked by the North Koreans, angry at the prospect of a film about an assassination attempt on the Dear Leader. The film was shelved by Sony, after it found distributors taking seriously the threats of cyber armageddon against them. Then President Obama got involved, criticising Sony for being chicken and invoking the Constitutional right for cinema chains to refuse to show a film if they so desired. No, hang on, I think I might have that wrong. Then there was a counter cyber-attack against the North Koreans which, if it was ordered by Obama, must be a rare example of the US going to war to protect a Japanese company’s interests. Then Sony called in favours to cobble together a limited release. Then the film made a day/date online/theatrical debut, a rare example of the cinema chains feeding the hand that bites them.

You could not orchestrate a better advertising campaign. If only it had been lavished on a better film. Because The Interview really really stinks. It’s written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and repeats the mistakes they made in two earlier films. The Green Hornet was another tin-eared piece of writing which, like an over-caffeinated breakfast radio DJ, mistook a “comedy” tone of voice for humour. And with This Is the End an initially funny film was run into the ground by Rogen and Goldberg’s dry-humping of the material. And to think these two wrote Superbad.

The plot is scant – airhead TV interviewer Dave Skylark (Franco) and his ambitious producer (Rogen) head to North Korea to interview Kim Jong-un, having been co-opted by the CIA (in the shape of Lizzy Caplan) into assassinating him while there. The “entertainment guys as stealth operatives” structure resembles Argo, and the film would have been a whole lot funnier played a whole lot straighter. Missing its open shots at the wide open goal that is entertainment TV – watching Eminem on the Dave Skylark show admit that, yes, he really is gay, might have raised a titter ten years ago – it then proceeds to take such weak pops at totalitarianism that in comparison Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator is Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.

To Kim Jong-un, a man responsible for the death of how many hundreds of thousands of people, and whose vainglory is another open goal, entirely missed. He speaks in “fuck yeah we can” argot, admits to a liking for Katy Perry and margaritas, even though they’re a bit sissy, in scenes where he bonds with Dave Skylark and they drive a tank about shooting at stuff.

It’s screwball comedy as written by the CIA, taking its propaganda cues from the “Hitler has only got one ball” ditty. However, none of this would matter if the interview itself, between Dumb and Kim Jong-Dumber, delivered the goods. It is, however, spectacularly inept. First it does that Hollywood thing where the “hero” has a sudden moment of clarity and does the right thing, Dave here suddenly veering off the script and pitching hardball questions at Kim, who counters with the observation that the US has more people incarcerated per capita than North Korea does. This is a blast so unexpected – because it actually connects with a fact out in the real world – that you want to applaud. Until you remember that this is a film about a totalitarian dictator that has managed to land not one single punch.



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© Steve Morrissey 2014


Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Andy Serkis (possibly) and James Franco in Rise of the Planet of the Apes

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

 

12 July

 

 

Julius Caesar born, 100BC

Most people have some inkling about the death of Julius Caesar – “et tu, Brute” etc – but he was born too, so it seems. In the year 100BC, on this day, to a family of patricians who already bore the cognomen Julia – descendants of the mythical Iulus (or so they liked to say) aka Ascanius, king of Alba Longa, son of Trojan hero Aeneas. Julius Caesar’s given name was Gaius, his family name Julius, the cognomen or family nickname Caesar – because one of his ancestors was born by caesarean section (from the Latin caedere – to cut), or had a thick head of hair (caesaries – hair), or because he had bright eyes (oculis caesiis – blue eyes), or that he killed an elephant in battle (caesai – Moorish for elephant). From coins struck during his rule, bearing images of elephants, it would seem that Julius Caesar preferred the last explanation. At 16 Julius Caesar’s father died and he became head of the family. He was also lined up to become the high priest of Jupiter, but intrigue against the family meant Julius Caesar was stripped of his inheritance and all titles, actual or pending. Which is how he ended up joining the army and embarking on a circuitous route to the top, won by prowess as a military man and administrator rather than connection to an important family. Sounds a bit like Gladiator.

 

 

 

 

 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, dir: Rupert Wyatt)

There are reboots and reboots. Rise of the Planet of the Apes goes right back to basics, calling on neither the original sequence of films made between 1968 and 1973, nor Tim Burton’s dreadful 2001 waste of everyone’s time. It’s the real reboot thing – a “here’s how it all happened” reimagining of how the Earth might have been taken over by apes. Or will happen, since it’s set in a ten-minutes-into-the-future present where a scientific researcher (James Franco) comes up with a drug for restoring brain function, tries it on the chimps at the lab and also sneaks some home for his beloved dad (John Lithgow) who has Alzheimer’s.
The bewildered/lucid Lithgow is little more than a humanising backstory to Franco, as is another of the film’s stars, Freida Pinto as Franco’s perpetually worried girlfriend, struggling to show off her range after being catapulted to fame by Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Andy Serkis completes the quartet, yet again in a mo-cap role (after playing the hero beast in King Kong and Gollum) as Caesar, the ape who has been born with consciousness and superior intelligence as a result of his mother getting a shot of Franco’s wonder serum. Add that to Caesar’s pre-existing animal cunning and we have… trouble.
I’m no fan of any of the Planet of the Apes films – people in chimp masks, whether riding horses or carrying a clipboard just doesn’t do it for me – and it’s said that Stanley Kubrick was furious when the original POTA won an Oscar for make-up. What about his apes – in 2001: A Space Odyssey – did the Academy think he’d used real ones? But good though Serkis is at conveying Caesar’s awakening as a sapient ape and his evolution as the sort of military strategist that his Roman namesake would recognise, the film actually spends most of its time operating as an update on the sort of 1950s B movie where concerned scientists would say things to each other in concerned-scientist monotones. On this level it’s a very good film: brisk, entirely sure of what it’s about, with a driving forward thrust and a keen interest in technology and the brains required to use them. The twist being that it’s the apes who start to learn; the humans are all over the place, unsure whether to let their head or their heart win out in any closely contested decision-making.
So we forgive Pinto’s flattish performance, the same way we forgive Franco, who could be just about anybody, because too much personality would just slow things down, make everything just a bit less slick.
As for its message – don’t be mean to the beasts, or the beasts might just be mean to you – it chimes entirely with species-ist claims for rights for animals in a way that’s incredibly direct and yet never obtrusive. Good work. No wonder the doctor ordered a sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

 

 

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Andy Serkis as Caesar
  • The film that rebooted a franchise
  • The clean modernist cinematography of Andrew Lesnie (Lord of the Rings)
  • Its thrilling “ape takeover” third act

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Movies About Charles Bukowski

Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor in Factotum

 

 

The news that James Franco is directing a film about gravel-voiced, pock-faced author Charles Bukowski, the go-to man for closet writers, bedroom tough guys and incipient alcoholics, reminds us that there have been several shots on goal before. Franco has a double obstacle – films about writing are inherently uncinematic, and films that rely on an authorial voice that’s ironic but utterly deadpan are also in choppy water. So Franco is concentrating on how Bukowski’s early years – abused at home, disfigured by acne – affected his later life. Perhaps Franco is buoyed up by the success of his portrayal of another writer, Allen Ginsberg. Or perhaps not. This is not Franco’s first time behind the camera – in fact it’s his 20th, if you include various shorts among the tally of full-length features. Let’s wish him luck – the writer who died in 1994 deserves a decent memorial to so much beautiful prose (try Post Office if you’re wondering where to start). Though the films that have either sprung from his work or been about him aren’t a bad bunch, as it happens.

 

 

Factotum (2005, dir: Bent Hamer)

It’s funny how an ugly monstrosity like Bukowski attracts the pretty boys. Here, Matt Dillon bulks up a bit (but not too much) to play Hank Chinaski (as Bukowski called himself in his books) in a film that paints exactly the sort of portrait that fans of romantic dissipation want. Director/co-writer Bent Hamer builds a faintly Jarmusch-esque altar to the life artistic, while Dillon gets the jittery walk of the alcoholic just right, the cockiness of the artist and the rasp of the libertine (“an excellent fuck who had a tight pussy and took it like it was a knife that was killing her”). As a portrait of the tortured genius drinking and fucking his way through life, and taking shitty jobs to make ends meet, Factotum is just great. When Chinaski the writer actually did the writing is not entirely clear.

 Factotum – at Amazon

 

Barfly (1987, dir: Barbet Schroeder)

“A drink for my friends,” growled as the hand makes a wild sweep around a dark bar-room, that’s the signature line and gesture in Barbet Schroeder’s film for which Bukowski himself wrote the screenplay. Mickey Rourke, heading for the exit as a proper Hollywood star, is appropriately cast as Henry Chinaski (ie Bukowski), and the film paints a wild and dangerous picture of life on and under the barstool. What little plot there is covers one of Bukowski’s periodic savings from oblivion, by a well meaning rich girl with a literary bent (played by Alice Krige), while on the other side of the seesaw Faye Dunaway represents the boozy allure of the life Bukowski already knows, but might (repeat might) be tiring of. It took director Barbet Schroeder – no stranger to the dark side – eight years to get this simple but pungent film made. Bukowski wasn’t keen on the result.

Barfly – at Amazon

 

Bukowski: Born into This (2003, dir: Joe Dullaghan)

The big advantage of Joe Dullaghan’s film about Bukowski is that it’s a documentary and features footage of the man himself. Bukowski threatening to kick butt at a poetry reading, Bukowski wanting to throw up from excess red wine drinking, Bukowski attacking his wife. But it also shows the other side of the man – tender, fearful – plus talking-head testimony from the likes of Sean Penn and Harry Dean Stanton and his wife, plus John Martin, the publisher who set up Black Sparrow Press just to get Bukowski’s books to market. This is a portrait of the artist as the real deal, a croak-voiced smoker of Indian beedies (“they go very well with red wine”), a romantic, a humorist, a lush but also – and this point is often overlooked – as a man who worked hard in total obscurity, who just kept on writing regardless of fame, which only came late in life. The film is a fan letter, for sure, which takes the man as myth and doesn’t do much probing below the surface. There’s plenty to see up-top though.

Bukowski: Born Into This – at Amazon

 

Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981, dir: Marco Ferreri)

An Italian film which went by the title Storie di ordinaria follia over there. It’s based on Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness, Bukowski’s book of collected short stories. Director Marco Ferreri essentially lifts some of the seamiest tales and half-heartedly attempts to string them together. So we get Bukowski (or Serking, as he’s known here, and played by Ben Gazzara) following a woman home from Venice Beach and getting involved in rape (disputed later). Later he hooks up with a woman in a bar who likes to spear her face with a long safety pin. Earlier he’s been cleaned out by a 13-year-old who’d been giving him the eye. Bukowski was not particularly keen on this first attempt to immortalise him on screen, and objected in particular to the sexual angle that Ferreri chose to take. Where’s the work?, he beefed. It’s a fair enough beef.

Tales of Ordinary Madness – at Amazon

 

Crazy Love (1987, dir: Dominique Deruddere)

Also known as Love Is a Dog from Hell – which sounds more like a Bukowski title – this cult Flemish film makes the point that inside every blistered cynic is a disappointed romantic. Geert Hunaerts plays Harry (the Bukowski avatar) as a callow youth shocked that the world of love isn’t the same as the one he’s seen up on the cinema screen. In the last two sections of this three-act quasi-biopic adapted from Bukowski books Harry is played by Josse De Pauw, first as a 19-year-old covered in suppurating acne and aching in his heart for the beautiful blonde at school, then finally as a 33-year-old who steals a corpse with a friend and then… well, let’s not go there. Sexually explicit (hey, it’s Belgium), funny, tender and macabre, Crazy Love is probably the nearest anyone has got on film to catching the anarchic, perverse spirit that draws people to Bukowski in the first place.

 Crazy Love – at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013