Monday, January 26, 2015

Inter-Reviews: Interstellar and The Interview

Interstellar - 2014, d. Christopher Nolan - in theatre
The Interview - 2014, d. Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg - youtube

This is really two separate reviews of two movies paired up into one post merely due to the commonality in their names, and the fact that I watched them on the same day.  I won't even try to create any tenuous connections to join them.

It seems that people these days have difficulty discussing a Christopher Nolan film without prefacing it with a discussion about Nolan himself.  He's the king of the cerebral blockbuster, the big budget genre film that's never solely centered around big action sequences or special effects.  Oh sure, he's a master orchestrator of both, but they always serve a purpose in advancing the story.  Likewise his films are never solely focussed with a particular characters journey, although the central characters typically have a journey to take, but the characters, and their journey, are typically intertwined with the film's conceit.  It is this conceit, however, that is always Nolan's focus, and the conceit is almost always one that's elaborate, requiring exploration, and sometimes, explanation.

That last point is many people's problems (and I've had many debates over Nolan's films in the past), that his exposition-heavy dialogue often takes them out of the film, and Nolan's tendency of over-explaining feels unnecessary at best and condescending at worst (I'd hazard a guess that there's some studio exec note saying "can you explain what's happening here? I don't get it").  Beyond that, some feel that his stories are dispassionate, cold, and emotionless, despite attempts at displaying emotion.  They're technical marvels, even his harshest critic can't refute, but, they'll continue, they're hard to connect with.

To some degree, I agree.  His films are on some level autistic, in a way: capable of marvelous things, but sometimes difficult to engage with on an emotional level.  It's often like they've learned how to fake their way at showing human emotions to fit in, but they're also a little beyond their ken.  I don't mean to be glib, mean or disparaging, I honestly have to wonder if Nolan is on the spectrum himself (and perhaps that's why he writes with his brother, to add in the emotional element).  Yet, even if the films don't exactly know how to emote love , it doesn't mean you can't love them back, admire their skill, and be impressed with what they achieve.  If Nolan's films are a little cold (and consistently so), so what? Are they not still impressive? Do they not still engage in a way unlike anything that's come before?

Interstellar, of any of his films, does have the most heart to it.  David broke down most of the story beats in his review, and as he noted the first act is consumed with establishing the decaying world, showing what remains of humanity, coping, finding normal as the threat of worldwide famine looms over.  This is shown through Matthew McConaughey's retired space shuttle pilot, Cooper, and his family.  He runs a farm growing corn (pretty much the only sustainable crop, though under constant threat of disease), and his teenage son, Tom, has taken being a farmer to heart.  His tween-age daughter, Murphy (the absolutely astounding Mackenzie Foy of Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), has her head in the sky, interested in space, science, astrophysics, all the things her father used to do.  Through them, we witness everyday life in this world, with glimpses of the past, and warnings of what the future brings.  It's pretty dire, but the life continues, society continues, in a diminished capacity but it continues.

The opening act is intercut with talking head moments talking about life as we see it on screen.  It's unclear if these are Ken Burns-style interviews regarding the dust bowl of the 1930's or if these are snippets from the future, detailing what we see on screen.  They are an intriguing element, but they dissipate quickly from the storytelling structure and in hindsight feel a bit out of place (their relevance loops back in at the end but it still makes for odd structure early on).

Noticing anomalies in gravity, Coop and Murph are led to a secret facility where they discover that NASA is alive and well, and they need Coop to fly their space shuttle through wormhole to another dimension where potential life-sustaining planets may exists (other missions have already gone, but data can only be sent through the wormhole, not received.  Cooper must leave his family in order to save them, something Tom accepts but upsets Murphy greatly.  Cooper promises to return but they both know it's highly possible that it's a promise that can't be kept.  The emotional tie, that connection, fuels Cooper throughout the film, informing not just his decisions but how he views others decisions.

He's off into space on the Endurance with biologist Amelia (Anne Hathaway); physicists Romilly (the delightfully understated David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley); and a pair of robots, TARS and CASE.  Both TARS and CASE are ex-military, re-purposed for civil duties since no armies exist any longer.  They look like, frankly, vending machines, 7-foot boxes that seem utterly clunky and impractical, but as the film progresses they reveal their utility, their dexterity.  They're truly like giant Swiss army knives with extremities that extend from every angle, with sub-extremities, and sub-sub-extremities, and sub-sub-sub... you get the picture.  The more of them we see, the more we can appreciate.  Beyond that, they have excellent personality matrices.  TARS, voiced by Bill Irwin (Mr. Noodle from Elmo's World) is the film's scene stealer, has his humour levels set at 85% so he's loaded with wry humour.  The robots play nicely into  the Hal-9000 "malevolent AI" stereotype for humour, but the film pointedly dispels any threat from them at regular intervals.  Through experience, we believe they're always a potential threat, but the reality is they're there to serve, and follow commands.

Once the Endurance is through the wormhole, the crew decides upon their next course of action, which is retrieving the data (if not the crew) of prior expeditions to the potential planets in the new solar system.  The theory of relativity comes into play in visiting these planets.  A few hours within the gravitational pull of one planet could mean the passage of years back home on Earth.  For Cooper, these missions are weighed against his commitment to return to Murph.

Their first venture features the film's biggest set-piece, a marvellously tense and awe-inspiring sequence of man-versus-nature/the unknown best experienced rather than told (and a real highlight of some of the robots' capabilities).  Upon completing the mission, the timeline has a natural fracture between Earth and where the astronauts are.  Coop catches up on years worth of messages from Tom (now played by Casey Affleck), but still nothing from Murph, who, now grown into Jessica Chastain, has become an astrophysicist at NASA, helping Amelia's father (Michael Cain) with Plan B (saving humanity if the search for new homes fail).

Where the first act was fully centered on Earth, and the second primarily on the other side of the wormhole (effectively capturing the distance and isolation of the astronauts from the remainder of humanity), the third act splits its time between the two,   The third act works to varying levels of success.  In space, the Endurance has to choose between two remaining planets, and the vote is between Amelia following her heart to the planet where her lover ventured to years before (and never returned) or to the planet which Doctor Mann's broadcasted signals claim to be a viable candidate.  Amelia's claims that her feelings, her love, the connection she feels that spans galaxies has to count for something, and Cooper, with his own feelings influencing his judgement defers to the cold hard facts.  The reveal of Mann's planet is beautiful, intriguing, and ultimately disappointing, leading to conflict that shouldn't be so necessary in a film that establishes that war has given way to the common need.

Meanwhile back on earth, Murphy struggles to bring Plan B to fruition, as things look ever more dire.  Blight is starting to take the corn crops.  Tom's family is falling sick and medical care is sparse as resources deplete.  Murphy and Tom face conflict as well, paralleling what Cooper faces.  In both cases it's the selfless battling the selfish, but on both sides of each conflict they view themselves as the altruistic ones.

The climax leads the film into it's 2001-like moment.  It's going to either going to fit comfortably or utterly snap the viewer's suspension of disbelief.  I toggled with the latter at first, but settled into it more as it progressed, and ultimately saw its place in the end.  It was indeed unusual, visually unique, and puzzling, but intriguing nonetheless.

There's a lot said about this being Nolan's version of a Kubrick and Spielberg film, but, truly it is a Nolan film through and through.  In many ways it seems like Nolan was intentionally trying to side-step Kubrick or Spielberg, to make and present a film that stands apart.  Although it may not satisfy everyone, it certainly does do just that.


I'm sure we all know the hype around The Interview, the American film about two tabloid TV journalists tasked with killing North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.  First there was the Sony Pictures network hack that revealed a lot of sensitive personal information, leaked new movies and scripts onto the internet, and dispensed a lot of juicy emails about the petulance of Hollywood celebs and execs, all in an effort to stifle the release of the movie.  Next there were outright threats of acts of terror against movie theatres that deigned to show this mockery of its glorious leader.  It was a marginal success, with Sony voluntarily pulling the film from distribution (after a major theatre chain pulled out of showing the film).  If there's no such thing as bad press, even if its terrible news, that's one hell of a marketing campaign.

Not even two weeks after it was originally supposed to debut in theatres, The Interview turned up online, and not as a leak as I originally suspected, but as a authorized-by-Sony new release rental on youtube.  Shortly thereafter it started appearing on on-demand networks all over the place and it started setting online rental records, for obvious reasons.  As I said, hell of a marketing
campaign.  I presume Sony thought that the hackers had done all they can do, and acts of violence against nebulous internet entities like youtube are a little harder to coordinate, I'm sure.

Most of the films written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg I have quite enjoyed: Suuperbad, Pineapple Express, and This Is The End have all traded in low-brow stoner comedy quite effectively.  The latter two have presented Rogen and James Franco as a comedy duo, with Pineapple Express being a "stoned and stoneder" modernization of Cheech and Chong, while This Is The End presented a sort of unrequited bromance amid a larger, wilder ensemble in a very meta end of the world scenario.  I'm quite receptive to what they do, (although I do recognize that their coarser, more immature comedy does turn a lot of people off) so I was quite looking forward to the absurdity of Franco and Rogen acting attempting to assassinate the leader of North Korea.  There was genuine disappointment when Sony decided to shelve it, as well as a weird, fevered excitement upon learning of its online release.

Unfortunate then that it was a terrible movie.  It's really not good at all.  It opens strong with Franco's talk show host interviewing Eminem and capturing an off-handed comment from the rapper that he's gay (Marshall Mathers putting in a tremendously casual performance as Franco tries to get absolute clarity on that fact), but it starts to ebb almost immediately after.  Rogen, as Franco's producer, is celebrating his tenth year in the role, and is feeling rather insecure and ineffective in the news business.  In an attempt to gain some credibility he seeks out an interview with North Korea's leader, and to his surprise it's accepted because Kim Jong Un is a huge fan of the show.  The star and producer are then intercepted by the CIA and tasked with assassinating the dictator with a lethal poison.  Of course, very little goes smoothly, as the two are neither trained killers nor spies, and crisis of conscience overtake them both.  Beyond that, Franco's interviewer starts to bond with the leader and actively sabotages the mission.  The main problem here is that it has difficulty telling a story about dumb characters without making it a dumb story.  There a level of suspension of disbelief required that the film never achieves.

The film was obviously written as a response to Dennis Rodman visiting North Korea and chumming it up with Kim Jong Un and standing up for him.  The film finds Franco falling under Jong Un's sway, sharing an interest in fast cars, driving tanks, drinking martinis, listening to Katy Perry and towing around their bisexuality.  The film posits that Jong Un is very charismatic, sensitive, intelligent and duplicitous, and after chumming around, befriending the dictator, Franco is reminded who the man is when he launches into a tirade at a dinner party, and starts to see through his mask of sensitivity and deception.  That mask is then served up in the actual interview, and, after its deluge of dick jokes, the film suddenly finds its moral high ground, reminding the audience that, oh yeah, Jong Un is a horrendous human being.  It also broaches what's happened in North Korea in the past 60 years, but only in a very general, haphazard way, as if Rogen and Goldberg read a Wikipedia article on the country and felt that was enough to get the point across.  Randall Park, who plays Jong Un, indeed is the highlight of the film.  Whereas Franco and Rogen have a well-honed buddy shtick at this point and don't really add much new to it in this outing, Park compliments, enhances, and interferes with their dynamic with undeniable charm and energy.  It's a great performance that the film doesn't quite deserve.

More interesting than entertaining is how the film deals with bisexuality, Franco's in particular.  It's the meta element of the film, but for a couple of years now, Franco's sexual identity has been questioned in the media, given a lot of the projects and documentaries he's been involved with.  In a sketch on Saturday Night Live, which he hosted this past December, he played a troll who stopped a young couple from crossing the bridge he lived under.  To pass he needed a kiss, and performer Kyle Mooney, the male of the couple, stepped up and made out with Franco intensely for 20 seconds.  After letting the couple pass, he was advised by his friend that he made out with the man-one, and he said, "Well, I guess I'm bisexual."  I know it was just a very silly sketch, but it seemed very much like a subversive coming out, certainly in the Franco style.  Couple that with the obvious bisexuality of his character in The Interview, and I'm getting the distinct hint that Franco's saying something.  That SNL skit, by the way, was not making the man/man makeout the butt of the joke, instead the joke was more directed to the fact that the Troll had a buddy staying with him and that she was subverting the whole troll cliche.  Meanwhile The Interview likewise wasn't making a joke out of bisexuality, and though it didn't have the courage to address it head on, it subliminally was calling for acceptance.  It's a deep layer in a shallow film that truly makes me wish it was a smarter movie.  It's structured very much like a 1980's-style comedy, painted largely with broad strokes and immature gags (it's perhaps the modern Spies Like Us, and equally poorly received).