Film review of The Interview

February 12, 2015

(This film review of “The Interview” appeared in print edition of the Australian Jewish News on 12 February 2015 and online on 18 February 2015 with the title “Interview with a comic twist”.)

Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; Written by Dan Sterling; Starring James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park and Diana Bang

In case you missed the news, “The Interview” is the film that may (or may not) have brought the major film production and distribution company Sony Pictures to its knees. This did not occur, like disasters of yore, because it cost heaps of money and flopped (“Heaven’s Gate”, “John Carter”), but for another reason entirely. Many experts (including the United States Government) allege that this fictional comedy about the attempted assassination of the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, resulted in a massive and unprecedented cyber-hacking of Sony’s computer systems by North Korean agents, revealing corporate secrets on an unprecedented scale.

In the movie, James Franco plays Dave Skylark, the host of sensationalist and low-rent television current affairs show called “Skylark Tonight”, with Seth Rogen playing his producer, Aaron Rapoport. When they realise that the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un enjoys watching their show, they propose to the North Koreans that they interview him. After Kim Jong-un surprisingly accepts, the CIA approaches the television duo with a plan that they assassinate the dictator. After some hesitation, they agree, in part because they are “honey potted” (seduced, in a way) by sexy CIA handler Lacey (Lizzy Caplan). Upon arrival in Pyongyang, however, Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) shows a warm and charming personality, successfully be-friending Dave Skylark, who in turn has second thoughts about the planned assassination. What follows is a fair bit of mayhem that even includes a possible nuclear war.

At its heart, “The Interview” is a B-grade film masquerading as a political satire of the American obsession with North Korea – or perhaps it is a political satire masquerading as a B-grade film: the result may be the same. Do not discount the schlocky, broadly comedic elements of “The Interview”: Seth Rogen – now widely recognised as one of America’s top comics – and his co-director Evan Goldberg are as close as we can get to this generation’s Mel Brooks: what was “Blazing Saddles” other than a broad satire on American race relations, under the guise of broad comedy?

Like so much of American political satire (and its intertwined cousin, American comedy), “The Interview” stems from a Jewish sensibility and outlook. Almost all of the major film-makers and actors (Rogen, Goldberg, Franco, Caplan) are Jewish, with Seth Rogen’s character clearly identified Jewish. In “The Interview”, Rogen further develops his on-screen Jewish persona: an intellectual (naturally), slightly overweight and highly sexed neurotic who over-thinks. His dalliance with a female member of the North Korean military elite (Diana Bang) is one of the cuter parts of the film. He is anything but an action hero, but is adept with physical comedy, which he performs here – at times with B-grade “gross-out” elements (be forewarned).

A particular delight is Korean-American actor Randall Park’s performance as the North Korean dictator, giving a wonderfully modulated and hilarious performance. There are also lots of fun cameos, with Eminem, Rob Lowe, Bill Maher, Seth Meyers and Joseph Gordon-Levitt all appearing.

Structurally “The Interview” is way less than perfect. There is at least major one device – the use of a killer poisonous bandaid-like strip – that is just left hanging (as it were). It’s a great set-up (one of the film’s best) that sadly lacks a punchline (or did I blink and miss it?). No matter, “The Interview” is good-humoured and very funny in parts, as well as a must-see for Seth Rogen fans.

*****

(The following is the original poster for the film, prepared prior to its postponed release.  According to Wikipedia, the Korean text reads: “The war will begin”, “Do not trust these ignorant Americans!” and “Awful work by the ‘pigs’ that created Neighbors and This Is the End“.)

The Interview original poster

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Film review of Mortdecai

February 7, 2015

(This review of “Mortdecai” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 5 February 2015.)

Directed by David Koepp; Written by Eric Aronson; Starring Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Munn, Paul Bettany, Jeff Goldblum and Jonny Pasvolsky

The new film “Mortdecai”, starring Johnny Depp as “Lord Charlie Mortdecai”, a shady British art dealer fighting off bankruptcy, follows a long tradition of the British comedy caper. Based on the humorous novel, “The Great Mortdecai Moustache Mystery” by Kyril Bonfiglioli, Mortdecai has a lot in common with P.G. Wodehouse’s foppish Bertie Wooster. Both are bumbling members of the British upper classes who romp through with witty dialogue, attended by loyal manservants (Wooster’s Jeeves and Mortdecai’s “Jock Strapp” – get the pun?).

“Mortdecai” races from one exotic location to another: from Hong Kong to London to Moscow to Los Angeles. In each one, Charlie manages to get himself into trouble and is invariably saved by the loyal Strapp (Paul Bettany). The production design is excellent (the “transitions” from one city to another are novel and funny) and the cast is strong. Aside from Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow stars as his wife Johanna; Ewan McGregor an old university friend, MI5 Inspector Marland, still in love with Johanna; Jonny Pasvolsky an international terrorist; and Jeff Goldblum a flamboyant American art entrepreneur.

“Mortdecai” falls into the category of a lightweight and enjoyable “guilty pleasure”, but where it falls down is in the script adaptation by first-time scriptwriter Eric Aronson. The dialogue is indeed witty, but the plot is overwritten, revolving around a stolen Goya painting that may or may not include the code to a Swiss bank account that contains Nazi riches. This reference to Nazi art theft is only a notional device that allows the characters to run around the world bumping into each other.

Much attention is paid to Mortdecai’s insistence on keeping his new moustache (the original book’s theme), to the disgust of Johanna, who refuses to sleep with him because of it. This must have seemed funny back in Wodehouse days, but in 2015 it is anachronistic and inconsequential. Another running joke is that servant Strapp continues to “take bullets” and other physical punishment for his master. There is a strong potential satire here about the attitudes of the British upper classes towards the lower classes, but this never properly develops.

Because we do not much care about Charlie Mortdecai’s problems, emotionally there is little at stake in the film. Underneath his roguish charm, Mortdecai seems a man out of his era, with a sensibility more suited for 1950.

Although the name Mortdecai could be mistaken for one of the stars of the “Purim” story, Lord Mortdecai is definitely not Jewish, although there are lots of Jewish connections to the film: (almost certainly) scriptwriter Eric Aronson along with actors Jeff Goldblum, Gwyneth Paltrow (Jewish father), and of course, Jonny (Jonathan Marc) Pasvolsky (see accompanying article), who plays the character of international terrorist Emil Strago. Pasvolsky is a South African-born Australian Jewish actor whose credits include one of the most Jewish Australian films, “Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueberger”. One minor character is even called Spinoza, although it’s not clear if this is a Jewish in-joke or not.

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Jewish movie trivia:

This film is the big Hollywood break for Australian actor Jonny Pasvolsky, who appeared in the Australia Jewish film “Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueberger”.  (See photo below of Pasvolsky in “Mortdecai”.)

IMDB reports that British actress Norma Attalah – who, as far as we can tell is not Jewish and acts the role of “Bronwen” in “Mortdecai” – played the Vishkower family maid in Barbra Streisand’s 1983 film “Yentl” (1983). Attalah was also Streisand’s “stand in” on the set, and memorised Yentl’s lines so that she could recite them while Streisand (as film director) was setting up shots. Recently Attalah also acted in a role in the British National Theatre’s production of the Nicholas Wright play “Travelling Light”, about the early Hollywood Jewish moguls.

Jonny Pasvolsky in Mortdecai


2014 Film Critics Circle of Australia Nominations Announced

February 3, 2015

The Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA), of which I am a member, has announced the nominations for the 2014 FCCA Awards.

The nominations for Best Australian Film of 2014 are The Babadook (producers Kristina Ceyton and Kristian Moliere), Charlie’s Country (producers Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr and Nils Erik Nielsen), Predestination (producers Paddy McDonald, Tim McGahan and Michael Spierig), Tracks (producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman) and The Water Diviner (producers Troy Lum, Andrew Mason and Keith Rodger).

Leading the nominations with nine nominations is The Water Diviner, followed by The Babadook and Predestination both with eight. Five nominations have been awarded to Charlie’s Country, Felony, The Rover and Tracks. The awards have been spread over twelve films released across Australia during the 2014 calendar year.

FCCA President and ABC Radio host Rod Quinn said, “This year’s nominees show the diversity of the Australian film industry – from a scary movie set in a haunted house, to a modern day epic, and stories that cover our entire continent. The filmmakers nominated include the biggest names in Australian film and many talented newcomers.”

The 2014 FCCA Awards Ceremony will be held on Tuesday 10 March, 2015 from 6.30pm at Paddington/Woollahra RSL, Paddington. During the ceremony there will be a tribute to three eminent members of the FCCA who have recently left their long term positions, Evan Williams who has retired from his position as film critic for The Australian, and Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton who have departed their 28 year television careers as hosts of SBS TV’s The Movie Show and ABC TV’s At The Movies.

2014 FCCA AWARDS NOMINATIONS LIST

BEST FILM (producers)
THE BABADOOK: Kristina Ceyton, Kristian Moliere
CHARLIE’S COUNTRY: Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr, Nils Erik Nielsen
PREDESTINATION: Paddy McDonald, Tim McGahan, Michael Spierig
TRACKS: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman
THE WATER DIVINER: Troy Lum, Andrew Mason, Keith Rodger

BEST DIRECTOR
Russell Crowe: The Water Diviner
John Curran: Tracks
Rolf de Heer: Charlie’s Country
Jennifer Kent: The Babadook
Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig: Predestination

BEST ACTRESS
Essie Davis: The Babadook
Sarah Snook: Predestination
Mia Wasikowska: Tracks

BEST ACTOR
Russell Crowe: The Water Diviner
Joel Edgerton: Felony
David Gulpilil: Charlie’s Country
Don Hany: Healing
Guy Pearce: The Rover

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Justine Clarke: Healing
Melissa George: Felony
Erin James: The Little Death
Jacqueline McKenzie: The Water Diviner
Susan Prior: The Rover

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Jai Courtney: Felony
Adam Driver: Tracks
Yilmaz Erdoğan: The Water Diviner
Robert Pattinson: The Rover
Tom Wilkinson: Felony

BEST PERFORMANCE BY A YOUNG ACTOR
Tilda Cobham-Hervey: 52 Tuesdays
Ashleigh Cummings: Galore
Angourie Rice: These Final Hours
Noah Wiseman: The Babadook

BEST SCREENPLAY
Matthew Cormack: 52 Tuesdays
Rolf de Heer, David Gulpilil: Charlie’s Country
Joel Edgerton: Felony
Jennifer Kent: The Babadook
Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig: Predestination

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Ian Jones: Charlie’s Country
Radek Ladezuk: The Babadook
Andrew Lesnie: The Water Diviner
Ben Nott: Predestination
Mandy Walker: Tracks

BEST MUSIC SCORE
David Hirschfelder: Healing
David Hirschfelder: The Water Diviner
Antony Partos: The Rover
Peter Spierig: Predestination

BEST EDITOR
Bryan Mason: 52 Tuesdays
Simon Njoo: The Babadook
Matt Villa: Predestination
Matt Villa: The Water Diviner

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Jo Ford: The Rover
Alex Holmes: The Babadook
Chris Kennedy: The Water Diviner
Matthew Putland: Predestination

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