The Interview – A Review

The Interview

I saw The Interview and lived to tell about it.

Much has been made about the new Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy The Interview and the fact that it may or may not have set off an international incident. I had wanted to see the film before the brouhaha, but I was more adamant about seeing it after Sony initially cancelled the film’s premiere and its Christmas release over concerns about threats to the movie houses that showed the film. I thought that pulling the film was misguided and would have a chilling effect on future projects. I was very happy that Sony reversed their decision and decided to release the film after all, both in independent theaters willing to show the film and on-line. I would have preferred to see the movie on the big screen and support the theaters that were willing to show the film, but unfortunately none of the independent theaters in Albany stepped up to show the film. I would have driven to Hudson is possible (about 45 minutes away), but that logistically didn’t work out. So instead, I rented the film from Google Play, popped some popcorn and settled in on my couch to support freedom of expression.

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Anyone watching The Interview solely out of some sort of patriotic duty who is not normally a fan of Seth Rogen movies was probably sorely underwhelmed with what they watched. The Interview is not any great satire of the North Korean ruler; this is not a film that will topple any regime. Rather, this is a typical Seth Rogen film, full of jokes about shoving things up your butt and other lowbrow humor, that just so happens to have the potential assassination of Kim Jong-un as a backdrop. This was a movie that simply wanted to incorporate real-life into one of their ridiculous movies; if you like Seth Rogen movies overall, you’ll probably like The Interview. If you aren’t a fan of his brand of comedy, the implied patriotism associated with watching The Interview won’t be enough to make you think this is a great film. This isn’t a great film, though I did chuckle several times. It may not be a movie that is worth going to war for, but that’s not the point. The issue was never the quality of the film – the issue was their freedom to tell the story that they wanted to tell.

The plot of the film is pretty straight forward: Dave Skylark (Franco) is the host of a popular show that focuses on interviewing celebrities. Aaron Rapaport (Rogen) is the producer of the show and though he is responsible for the show’s success, he is not fully satisfied with the show’s frivolous content and dreams of turning the show into something more serious. When word comes down the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) is a fan of Skylark, the duo seize the opportunity to obtain the interview of a lifetime. They are then approached by CIA Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) with one simple request for their trip to North Korea – assassinate Kim Jong-un. Though Dave and Aaron are not particularly qualified to pull off such a caper, they agree, though Skylark begins to have second thoughts once he spends some time with the Supreme Leader. Things escalate and comedy ensues as Aaron and Dave try to convince the other of the right course of action.

Though a lot of the funniest parts of the movie are indeed featured in the trailer, there were still plenty of laughs to be found in The Interview. I really like the easy chemistry between Franco and Rogen, so I may very well be a soft sell for any type of movie that features them. The Interview isn’t necessarily the most sophisticated movie, but sometimes you just need some silly laughs and this film has them. I was entertained throughout the course of the movie, even while listening for the sound of missiles aimed at my apartment (I kid, I kid). I liked The Interview more than I liked Anchorman 2 and I’d put it right in the middle of my enjoyment of Rogen movies – it wasn’t nearly as clever or funny as Superbad, but I did like it more than Pineapple Express.

That being said, I think that Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg need to branch out into some new directions. While I generally enjoyed The Interview, it felt very familiar. Rogen and Goldberg know what kind of jokes work for their audience, but at this point the enjoyment is tempered with the vague feeling that this has become formulaic. The idea for a movie that features two Americans charged with assassinating the leader of another country was creative, but most of the jokes in the film failed to live up to the originality of the premise. A lot of the jokes that they used could have been in any movie, and many of them have been used in other movies in some version or another. I just wish that the creativity that they have for the plot would trickle down to the actual execution (ha!) of the actual comedy in the film. I guess if it ain’t broken you shouldn’t fix it, but we’re nearing the point of diminishing returns. I’m not above some sophomoric humor, but don’t be lazy about it. I think that they can do better than running jokes about the sexuality of liking a Katy Perry song. Silly humor that is actually smart is possible.

Regardless of the above critique, I did laugh out loud several times during The Interview, which is all that ultimately matters. I sincerely hope that the term “honeydick” enters the common lexicon, which will make a lot more sense after you’ve seen the movie. I can understand why Kim Jong-un might not be thrilled with a movie that is centered on killing him, but in all honesty his character comes off as pretty likable for a lot of the film. Kudos to Randall Park for his performance which is actually way more nuanced than you would have thought; while ultimately Team America: World Police is a much better satire, The Interview manages to make Kim Jong-un a more three-dimensional character than how his father was depicted in Team America. He’s still obviously the bad guy, but he’s also kind of a baller which is an amusing juxtaposition. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the awesome wardrobe that Franco gets to wear as Skylark in this film. It’s not necessarily worth seeing The Interview simply to check out his ensembles, but I will say that his cardigan game is pretty strong.

I am glad that I got the chance to see The Interview, though ultimately this is a film that can’t quite live up to the hype that surrounds it. I still think it’s worth seeing if you are a fan of Seth Rogen comedies and if you want to support artistic freedom, but this is not a film that will change the world – nor did it set out to do so. If not for the big deal made about the film, I think it probably would have come and gone without much fanfare. It’s a silly film that is fine, but it’s right in the middle in term of quality and hilarity; it’s not the best that Rogen and Goldberg have come up with and it’s not the worst. My expectation were kind of low based on some of the buzz that I heard prior to release, so the film was actually much better than I thought it was going to be. This wouldn’t have been the film that I would have gone to the mattresses for if I was picking a film to defend, but you don’t always get to pick which battles to fight. I’ll always defend the right of people to make the movie that they want to make and I’m against censorship – let the marketplace decide – but I just wish that The Interview was a slightly better film – not because of the controversy, but because I like good comedies. Stripping away what The Interview has become, it’s a perfectly acceptable and amusing film that fans of Rogen and Franco will probably appreciate but won’t be blown away by.

The Interview is currently in limited release at independent movie theaters and can be streamed through Google Play, iTunes, YouTube and Xbox live. If you can, support your independent theaters.

Neighbors – A Review

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One of the variables that you can’t really control when you buy a house is the neighbors. You can do as many inspections as you like on your potential new home, but you don’t really get a good read of the neighborhood until you spend a lot of time in it. The couple next door that seemed so friendly may have loud arguments after having too much to drink. The guy across the way may play his music to loud. The family that was so welcoming can be extremely nosy and far too invested in your business. Even when you have good neighbors, there is always the potential that they will sell their home and some unknown quantity can throw off the delicate balance of the neighborhood. Having crappy neighbors can make life pretty miserable.

This is the central conceit behind the new comedy Neighbors. Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly (Rose Byrne) have a young baby and have just spent all their savings on a new home in a quiet residential neighborhood. Much to their dismay, the house next to them is purchased by a fraternity from the local college, bringing loud music and debauchery to their doorstep led by fraternity president Teddy (Zac Efron). While initially wanting to be the cool couple, one too many sleepless nights leads them into war with the fraternity, who have no intensions of adjusting their party schedule for the people next door. Both sides try to force the other out and a small neighborhood dispute morphs into a take no prisoners epic battle for survival.

While there are definitely some funny moments in Neighbors, it never quite lived up to the comedic potential that I thought that the story and cast had. It’s a generally amusing film, but I really didn’t laugh as much as I had hoped I would; I chuckled here and there, but there just weren’t the barrage of jokes that I anticipated. There were plenty of things that I liked about Neighbors, but ultimately it comes down to whether the film was funny or not. On that count, I’d have to say that you could probably wait for this film to come out on DVD, though seeing a shirtless Efron on the big screen may be worth the price of admission for some.

One of the things that I liked about Neighbors is that it subtly shows a maturity in these types of films. Now that is not to say that there wasn’t plenty of sophomore humor in the film – there are plenty of dick jokes if that is your jam –but the characters in the movie show a slight evolution toward adulthood. The film’s sympathies definitely lie with Mac and Kelly – this is not a film about poor kids not being able to party. The “adults” are not the villains here and there is never any doubt that living next to a fraternity and all that generally comes with it would not be a homeowner’s dream. In a lot of ways, Neighbors is quietly dealing with the changing priorities people have as they get older. Mac and Kelly are really struggling with the idea that they are no longer hip. That’s a different perspective from the norm of this genre of movies that tend to focus on arrested development and the man-children that don’t want to accept real responsibility.

There is also a subtle shift in the gender dynamic of these type of films; usually the wife/girl friend is the shrew who tries to stop the man from having any fun. The women are typically objects to lust after or people to flee because of their nagging, killjoy ways. Neighbors is a buddy comedy, but the buddies are Mac and Kelly. They are clearly a team in this film – they like spending time together and both can be immature or make poor decisions. They hatch their plans together; Kelly isn’t running in to clean up the mess that Mac made without her knowing – she’s making the mess right along with him. It’s a minor difference, but it’s an important one and reflects a more nuanced look at relationships. Rogen and Byrne are both fun to watch and they play off each other very well. Byrne has quietly been building up a nice little comedic resume, but mostly in supporting roles, so it is nice to see her get a chance to shine. She more than keeps up with

Efron was also enjoyable in his role as the resident bad boy. I haven’t seen a lot of his movies – his project and my personal preferences rarely seem to line up – but playing a smarmy jerk seemed like a bit of departure for him. He should play jerks more often, since he really seemed to have fun with it. He provides a nice foil to Rogen. If you only know Efron from his High School Musical days, Neighbors will do a lot to make you think of him in a different way. Dave Franco – brother to James – also turns up as the more level-headed vice-president of the fraternity and does his usual solid job. Hannibal Buress, Lisa Kudrow, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Carla Gallo and Ike Barinholtz all turn up in small parts as well, but aren’t given a ton to do.

Full disclosure – I lived across the street from a fraternity house for two years. Granted, at the time I was living in my sorority house, but both of our houses were smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood. I don’t really recall them making any sort of a ruckus – at least not the kind that was distracting to neighbors. Plenty of shenanigans happened, but away from the prying eyes and ears of outsiders. Probably the biggest disruption occasionally came from loud drunk college kids leaving or arriving at parties, but when you live in a town that has 52 bars and two college campuses, that was probably going to be an issue regardless of Greeks living in your neighborhood or not. We also knew that we had to be nice to our neighbors since we required a special use permit to have a fraternity or sorority house operational in neighborhoods that were renewable yearly. Cause too much of a problem and the neighbors could complain and you wouldn’t have a house the next year. I’m not saying that things were 100% perfect – even my sorority got a noise ordinance once and we were pretty by the books – but it wasn’t a constant barrage of loud music and disruptive behavior for the neighbors to endure. Whether we were just really well-behaved Greeks overall or our neighbors just didn’t care since they had lived next to Greek houses for a long time, I really have no memories of there being any problems with the non-collegiate residents of Elm Street. If anything, the fraternity was an endless source of amusement; watching them move all their living room furniture outside so they could play video games on the front lawn or try to figure out how to best pack their jeeps for a camping trip provided us with plenty of entertainment. I’m not saying that I would necessarily revel in living next to a fraternity house now, but it wasn’t nearly as insane as depicted in Neighbors.

Sadly, the whole just winds up being less than the sum of its parts with Neighbors. Despite the very funny cast and a creative premise, the laughs are just too sporadic in the film for it to be considered a must-see. The film tries to have it all – be a raunchy comedy while at the same time have some sweetness and meditate on maturity and changing priorities – but doesn’t successfully blend both aspects successfully. Some slow pacing and letting some jokes run a beat too long result in a film that just isn’t as funny as it should be. Neighbors has its moments – it is especially fun to watch Rose Byrne hatch a plan of destruction – but they are too few and far between for it to become a modern classic. Solid effort all around, but the final product just doesn’t quite live up to the hype.

Neighbors opened nationwide on May 9th.

Sneak Peek – This is The End

When the end of the world comes, people like to think that they would rise to the occasion. They would be their better selves and find the strength that they needed to act heroically and keep their loved ones safe. They would be brave and band together with others to survive, helping each other out along the way as best they could. This noble impression is reinforced in countless apocalyptic movies and television shows.

In reality, people would freak the hell out and get into petty squabbles over who ate the last Milky Way while holed up in their home. The new Seth Rogen movie This is The End recognizes this and embraces it. This certainly isn’t the best film of 2013, but I’m willing to bet it may be the funniest. It’s silly and profane, but it is also spectacularly amusing. Once the film started, I didn’t stop laughing until the credits started rolling and even then I still had some residual giggles from what I had just watched.

In This is The End, Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride and Jay Baruchel play fictionalized (one would hope) versions of themselves. Jay is in town visiting his pal Seth, though their relationship is a bit strained as they have started to grow apart. Jay isn’t particularly fond of Seth’s new posse of friends and reluctantly accompanies him to a house warming party at James Franco’s house. The party is in full swing when the unthinkable happens: the world comes to an end. The ground opens up, the mountains are on fire and chaos rules the night as some people are beamed up into the night sky. The six friends take shelter in Franco’s mansion and do their best to hunker down and make sense of the situation. They are ill-prepared for this sort of situation and soon cabin fever and fear begin to reveal how they really feel about each other.

Written by Rogen and Evan Goldberg – the same pair that wrote Superbad and Pineapple Express (and to be fair, last year’s dreadful The Watch) – This is The End will not be confused for sophisticated or highbrow humor. There are lots of jokes about masturbation, drug use and the like. If that kind of humor offends you or isn’t your thing, than save your cash and go see something else. But if you don’t mind jokes that dip into the crude and inappropriate, This is The End is an amazingly fun ride. Not every joke lands with perfect precision, but the jokes are so rapid fire that you don’t even have time to dwell on the few that don’t work as well. There were probably some jokes that missed that I didn’t even hear because I was laughing so hard at the joke that preceded it and the one that followed it. When the jokes do hit their target, which the majority does, it is some of the funniest stuff I’ve seen on the big screen in quite some time. And as with most Rogen films, it isn’t all poop jokes and related nonsense; underneath all the sophomoric hijinks there is some sweetness and heart.

The cast is outstanding in this movie; it’s a real who’s who of the young comedians working today. The six main actors alone are a Murder’s Row of comedy; any film would be lucky to get two or three of these guys in a movie. Having all of them work together somehow just doesn’t seem fair. This is the most I’ve enjoyed a James Franco performance in quite some time. If he had been this loose and funny at the Academy Awards it would have been a totally different show. It helps that all of these guys are friends or have worked together previously. The chemistry is palpable and they are clearly having so much fun doing this that it is contagious. They don’t take themselves too seriously and are more than willing to have jokes at their own expense, whether it is a reference to Rogen’s “distinctive” laugh to lingering questions about Frano’s sexuality. They just go for it and appear to be having the time of their lives in the process. Add that it is just plain funny to boot and this movie is really firing on all cylinders.

While the leads are stellar, what really takes this movie to the next level are the fantastic cameos throughout the film. I have a sneaking suspicion that Rogen just opened up his rolodex and called a bunch of his famous pals to be a part of this and the film is the better for it. All sorts of funny people pop up and I’m sure that I’ll catch some more people upon repeat viewings. The real scene stealer of them all is Michael Cera. I don’t want to spoil the fun, but suffice it to say that I was glad that I had watched all the new Arrested Development episodes before the screening of This is The End as I’m not sure that I’ll look at him the same way again. There is another standout cameo that is also spectacular, but to say any more would ruin the surprise. Let’s just say that you’ll know it when you see it. It’s outstanding.

Some other thoughts:

  • Any movie that reunites all the male Freaks from Freaks and Geeks automatically gets a B+ in my book.
  • I have no idea what Rihanna is doing in this movie. She’s the only casting choice that didn’t feel organic and stood out.
  • I have no idea why, but “sinkhole de mayo” still cracks me up.
  • The idea that Rogen pitches for Pineapple Express 2? I would totally watch that.
  • Rolling Stone did an interview with 4 of the stars (no Robinson or Baruchel) and to say that Hill isn’t portrayed well is putting it mildly. That dude needs a publicist and to remove the stick from his bum.
  • Ha! The ending is wacky, but if you know me (and I’d like to think at this point you kind of do) you will appreciate why it make me smile despite its lunacy.
  • Unless they changed this after the advanced screenings, no need to stay after the credits. We waited around to see if they would give us another morsel, but sadly there was no additional material.

This is The End is a rollicking summer comedy that exceeded my expectations. The theater rocked with laughter at my screening; it was a diverse crowd but everyone seemed to really enjoy themselves. If you are looking for a silly and ridiculously funny movie, look no further. I’m not saying I’m rooting for the rapture, but if it was coming This is The End wouldn’t be the worst note to end it on.

This is The End opens nationwide Wednesday June 12th.