The Interview (2014)

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I’ve already written about the pre-release furore over “The Interview”, which you can read here if you’d like. It was a fascinating moment, and genuinely serious political things were happening as a result of a fairly lightweight comedy; after getting perhaps the greatest pre-release publicity any film has ever received, it was eventually released both online and in selected independent cinemas (my friend Scott even got his photo on his local news after attending a showing).

James Franco is Dave Skylark, a “tabloid” TV news show host, and Seth Rogen is Aaron Rapaport, his producer. In between Eminem “shockingly” revealing himself as gay and an endless stream of puff pieces, they have a bit of a revelation and want to do some meatier news, so when Dave finds out that Kim Jong Un is a huge fan of their show, it starts a chain of events that eventually has them flying over to North Korea to do an interview with the world’s most reclusive leader. The CIA, as represented by Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), see a huge opportunity and want the two of them to assassinate Un with slow-release ricin.

The thing that most surprised me about this movie is how funny it is. I’m not really the world’s biggest fan of Rogen – I thought “Pineapple Express” was lazy and unfunny, really didn’t like “The Green Hornet” , and didn’t care for “Superbad” or “The Watch” (he wrote them). “This Is The End” was an improvement, even if it could have been a bit funnier…I think this is probably his best film, which given the subject matter is a surprise to me.

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Honestly, it’s nice to see a film which is in unapologetic bad taste. “The Producers”, “Man Bites Dog”, “Four Lions”, “Postal”, “Used Cars”…among others, these are films that are unafraid to go to dark places for their humour and occasionally go over the top. A film about an idiot TV presenter and his ever-so-slightly pretentious producer being tasked with killing Kim Jong Un is certainly not the average comedy plot, and they go for it. Because Franco doesn’t like the special assassination bag he was supplied with by the CIA, he transfers the strip of ricin to a pack of gum, and as they’re being searched on their way into the Presidential compound…well, I’m sure you can figure out what’s going to happen. The two of them are honeytrapped by everyone around them, on both sides, and unlike the average thriller character they are aware of all this stuff and constantly comment on it. James Franco plays a loveable idiot as well as anyone, even if I’m not entirely sure Rogen really acts any more, just plays himself in a new job.

It’s not all fun, games, and grossout humour though. Showing Un as a lover of Western culture is about as obvious a joke as you could get; and Lizzy Caplan’s CIA agent gets to do almost literally nothing other than show us a bit of cleavage. But the worst problem is the ease of its target, and the way it treats slightly more difficult targets.

I don’t believe in the argument that roughly goes – well, why are you attacking X when *even worse thing Y* exists in the world? Because terrible regimes are in charge of lots of other countries, it doesn’t let North Korea off the hook. But the little segment in China, when Aaron goes to meet the North Korean representatives, gives the lie to that. China is shown to be a wonderful, friendly place where strangers share their food and drink, where everything is lovely; of course, it’s one of the worst human rights abusers in the world, where democracy doesn’t exist and people who work in mobile phone factories are committing suicide regularly due to the appalling conditions of near-slavery they live in. The primary difference between the two countries that Sony, the producers of “The Interview”, cared about? That they can make lots of money from Chinese cinemagoers. Seriously, there are no mainstream films that criticise China any more.

The puppy survives, don't worry

The puppy survives, don’t worry

If you’re living in the Middle East and know someone who died thanks to a drone strike, or you’ve spent any time in Cuba, or have lived in any of the countries whose legal rulers were deposed thanks to CIA agents in the past, then your view of the happy friendly USA will probably be fairly similar to how this movie views North Korea – with the difference being, the USA is a threat to every country in the world, and North Korea isn’t really a threat to anyone. But, the film is smart enough to realise this, and very quietly slips in a few Occupy-approved things, like how they have lots and lots of nukes but don’t want anyone else to have them, and have a higher prison population per capita than North Korea does. But this is small comfort and doesn’t let the film off the hook.

As much as they want him to be, Kim Jong Un just isn’t Hitler, and whenever the film’s not trying to be funny, it suffers from a very poor understanding of how the world works. Although in a weird way, it might have a positive outcome, as it’s perhaps going to be the end of North Korea being seen as the movie world’s whipping boy (like, most famously, “Red Dawn”, where the Chinese invasion force was digitally altered to be North Korean after filming had ended). If only the two incredibly wealthy, privileged actors had stuck to making fun of a fictitious country! I also wonder just how loud the pro-freedom of speech brigade would be shouting if the tables were turned – could you imagine a knockabout mainstream comedy from the Middle East about a couple of TV show hosts tasked with doing a special from the USA, and assassinating the President?

Lastly, it’s really funny, Franco is an amazingly gifted actor, and it’s definitely worth watching – you don’t have to agree with the politics of all your art, I suppose.

Rating: thumbs up

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American Warships (2012)

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Remember that film “Battleship” from a few years ago that was gigantic critical and commercial disaster, thinking Rihanna was the most exciting thing in the world and having perhaps one remotely clever moment – the alien bombs looking exactly like the little pegs in the board game? Well, the Asylum and the SyFy Channel were clearly banking on it being a bit of a success because they mockbustered it with “American Warships” (it was originally called “American Battleships”, but the Asylum were successfully sued).

The USS Iowa is an old ship, and it’s about to take its last trip, to become a floating museum. A bunch of implausibly hot, young museum employees are stripping out all the post-WW2 modifications and giving it a factory reset; it’s got a small crew who aren’t really prepared to fight; and just as they set off for home, all hell breaks loose. Planes are blown out of the sky, ships are sunk, all electronic devices at sea are fried.

The initial blame is laid on North Korea. I mean, come on! I know Fox News and its cohorts in the fear-mongering business will try and blame them for everything, but the Armed Forces should know that North Korea can’t feed its own people, let alone start a successful war with the USA. So, the Iowa goes back to using its pre-electricity stuff (which is never more than a nod to the ship used in the big budget movie) and moves towards North Korea to try and figure out what’s happening.

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When you see a teleporting space-submarine, I was like “okay, it’s aliens, just like I suspected”, but the film takes another 20 minutes before the cast find this out. To call it slow is almost an insult to slow things – I checked the time, expecting to see about 20 minutes to go, only to discover we’d barely passed the half-hour mark. Come on, movie! So, blah blah blah, will our brave boys and girls (there’s also a surprisingly good female Navy Intelligence Officer on board, who only gets her ass ogled by the cast or the camera three times) fight off the alien menace, hurrah for the USA, etc.

The cast isn’t really that bad – Mario Van Peebles is a steady hand, and Carl Weathers, despite me thinking of his amazing guest appearances in “Arrested Development” every time I saw him, is decent too. There are women on board who are there because they’re good at their jobs, which is good, but treated as sex objects anyway, which is not so good. It’s so ponderously slow, though, that having decent actors on board (if only that was a pun, it would be the most entertaining thing associated with either the blockbuster, the mockbuster or this review) means little.

So, if I was being honest I’d say avoid this one. The Asylum will make many, many better films than this, which the me of a year ago would have considered a surprising statement. I think me and the Asylum need some time apart, to think about what we want as a film company and a film review site. See you in the autumn, terrible movies.

Rating: thumbs down

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The 3 Musketeers (2011)

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The Asylum wins some and loses some when it comes to its mockbusters. When the big film they’re ripping off is a success, their cheap little film can suck up some of the money floating round; but when it’s not, their choice to ride its coattails can seem odd – and so it is with “The 3 Musketeers”, the big version being a critical and commercial disaster. The Asylum’s version, which thanks to the public domain nature of the original story, could have been a much closer adaptation than they ended up making, owes a lot to films like “The Losers”, “Red”, and “The A Team” – while still keeping some of the main, more famous plotlines and characters from Dumas’ novel.

We see the Musketeers in action in North Korea first, wisecracking their way through a few fights, some gun battles and the stealing of a helicopter. They’re an elite special forces unit – the best of the best from all the wings of the armed forces. We’ve got Aramis (Michele Boyd), the sexy ass-kicker; Athos (Xin, I love actors with one name) the martial arts / parkour guy; and Porthos (Keith Allen) the tech genius / comic relief. They’re doing great until they’re betrayed by the evil Cardinal, who’s trying to start a war between the USA and North Korea…

Okay, I need to step in for a moment. North Korea is a country so poor it can’t afford to feed its own people, and there is absolutely no way it would ever be the remotest threat to the USA. Films like this and “Red Dawn” would much rather use China, a country that absolutely could be a threat, but the problem with real actual threats is they don’t love being insulted, so films that show them as the bad guy don’t get sold to China, and film companies like profit much more than they like sticking to reality in any way.

So, the Musketeers are personae non grata, and it’s all down to the mysterious shadowy “Cardinal” (Alan Rachins, aka the hippy Dad from “Dharma and Greg”). He’s in charge of a group of former Musketeers who are now some private military contractors – again, a nice scapegoat when the people you really want to show as the villains are the US Army. He’s even got a rough approximation of Milady DeWinter helping him out in the field!

But it’s when D’Artagnan is introduced that things get a bit confusing. She’s an analyst for some wing of the Army, reporting to the General, David Chokachi from “Baywatch”! Not only is she super-smart, but she’s a former Olympic fencer (as is he, which comes in important near the end), knows tons of martial arts, you know the drill. She wants into field agent work, but needs to learn patience according to ol’Chok. This scene takes place on the same set as the military base in “Super Cyclone”, and if I had to guess I’d say it was The Asylum’s offices (there’s a scene later on, the nerve centre of the military contractor’s headquarters, which was also the control room for the oil rig in “Super Cyclone”. I love that film).

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She’s given a bit of nothing work by a co-worker, which involves going to see a bonkers old man…who’s not bonkers at all!…and it’s here she gets sucked into the conspiracy and tracks down the Musketeers to get their help. So…she’s an actual descendant of a chap called D’Artagnan who was a Musketeer for Louis XIV, but Portos, Athos and Aramis are all code names. It’s a confusing clash – is the book famous or not? Ah, who cares.

So, she’s on the run, but has the information about the Cardinal’s plans. How do she and the Musketeers get on? Porthos drops obscure quotes from old 1980s action films, and while they’re trying to resolve “Operation Dumas” D’A gets double-crossed by the General, and there’s capture and escape and a mission to stop the Cardinal from killing the President and starting war with North Korea.

Before I get on to the bit about if it was any good or not, there’s a couple of quite jarring moments in this. While escaping, two of our heroes – rather than knocking one of their assailants out, as they’ve been doing up to this point occasionally, set him on fire! This seems over the top, I hope you’ll agree. And secondly, while escaping in a helicopter, D’A (who happens to be black, played by the beautiful Heather Hemmens from the sadly missed “Hellcats” and the sadly unmissed “Rise Of The Zombies”) orders Porthos to hurry up. He turns and goes “yes massa, sorry massa”. I can understand them writing the script before they cast any of the parts, but to keep that line, so redolent of slavery, and have a white man say it to a black woman must have set off an alarm bell somewhere on set, surely? Maybe I’m being too sensitive.

The weird thing is, this is a pretty good film! If you can ignore the extraordinary cheapness of the film – Camp David, the President’s rural retreat, appears to be represented by a portakabin and a small cottage, for one – then there’s a lot of fun to be had. There’s a lot of banter between the Musketeers and it works well, being light, funny and character-appropriate (although I have to assume if I’m ever in the middle of a firefight I won’t try and hit on any of my female co-workers) and while they could do with hiring a decent fight co-ordinator, or training their actors better, I understood why person A was fighting person B and enjoyed it. It feels distinctly strange to say this, but I enjoyed a film made by The Asylum, with basically no qualifications.

Rating: thumbs up

PS. When you start noticing it, you won’t be able to stop, but it seems like they hired a different editor for the last half-hour of the film. There’s hundreds of weird stuttery little cuts in the middle of nothing scenes – so, someone will be getting out of a car and what would take 5 seconds of screen time has some frames chopped out so it ends up taking 3. I have no idea what they were trying to achieve with it, but it’s bit odd.

"Wait, the ISCFC like one of our films? Hell frozen over yet?"

“Wait, the ISCFC like one of our films? Hell frozen over yet?”