Monday, December 29, 2014

A Smash on VOD: The Interview

The Interview, out on limited theatrical release and VOD as a result of the Sony Pictures hacking scandal and alleged threats from the government of North Korea, might just be the silliest, most sophomoric film to have gotten world-wide news coverage. Though way too much has been written about this movie already, Sony has announced that it has made $15 million, which makes it a groundbreaking VOD success, and definitely something to spill more ink about.  Let me get my poisoned pen.

Though the film tries to be a satire of a contemporary dictator, it lacks the talent to take its mission to the end, preferring to veer away from political mockery and head downhill to the lowest of the lowest burlesque. As expected, the result is no Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be or The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin's brilliant sendup of Hitler's Fascist Germany. Both of these classics were released in the middle of World War II, and each offered insightful satirical parody while commenting on the nature of evil. The Interview, instead, knocks loudly at the door of Pyongyang and then runs away. More or less that's the nature of the humor throughout the film. That, and a penchant for anal penetration jokes.

James Franco overplays Dave Skylark, the kind of obnoxious TV talk host that drools all over Eminem (in a surprisingly understated performance) after the rapper admits on the air that he is gay. Inside the booth, Seth Rogen is Skylark's producer, who after meeting a college buddy who is now a senior producer on 60 Minutes, begins to understand that the product he's putting out is garbage. He conceives the brilliant idea to travel to North Korea, and land an interview with Kim Jong-un. However, when the CIA finds out about this unlikely, unexpected road trip (which Skylark continually compares to the journey in The Lord of the Rings), agent Lacey (Lizzie Caplan), like a siren, bewitches the two cable news dodos into assassinating the North Korean leader.

As far as good taste is concerned, it all goes downhill as soon as the pair arrive in North Korea. The Supreme Leader (Randall Park) is a psychological mess whose father has trained him from childhood that it is gay to drink margaritas. No doubt, this has led Kim Jong-un to make sure that his people believe that he has no need to urinate or defecate. Needless to say, his butthole does not fail to make an audio appearance during the course of the film. And there you have it, folks: there's the big difference between this film and, say, The Great Dictator. When Chaplin played with a globe of the world, bouncing it up and down, it becomes a comic/chilling moment. Here, the most graceful thing this dictator can do is to rip one out for laughs.

Too bad, because the film starts out a bit more promising. Following an old-fashioned Columbia Pictures logo, the angelic face of a Korean girl, singing about her hatred of the United States of America, appears in closeup. "May your women all be raped by beasts of the jungle while your children are forced to watch!" she sings. And as the camera pulls back, a nuclear warhead launches into the sky. If only the movie would have continued at this level.

My biggest fear about this entire mess is that I can already see Dave Skylark making a comeback (like a low-grade James Bond) in a future adventure.  Let's hope that everyone involved thinks thrice before this happens.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Die Meistersinger is back at the MET

The Otto Schenk, Günther Schneider-Siemssen production of Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is back at the Metropolitan Opera, playing for seven performances, including an HD telecast of the Saturday matinee on December 13.  I will be in the house for that performance.

These are turning out to be very important performances.  To begin with, it is the only Wagner opera that the MET will be presenting this year, and all the performances are slated to be conducted by James Levine, who is experiencing a tremendous year, celebrating his full-time comeback to the MET after a prolonged illness.
This is also the last time that this famed production will be seen at the MET.  The conservative staging will be retired, and in its place the Metropolitan Opera will present in the future the new Stefan Herheim production (pictured above) that premiered at the Salzburg Festival last summer. Mr. Herheim is a world famous proponent of "Regietheatre" and his production of Parsifal, which I saw at the Bayreuth Festival in 2012, takes extensive liberties with the plot of the opera. Michael Volle, who sang the role of Hans Sachs in that Salzburg production will be singing some of the performances this year, although house bass-baritone James Morris (who sang Hans Sachs last time this production was mounted) will be singing the majority of the performances.

Peter Gelb has made sure that Mr. Volle will be singing the HD telecast, and he is already in conversation with the singer about singing the role of Wotan next time the MET mounts their controversial staging of the "Ring."

Friday, December 05, 2014


 Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a major achievement from Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the director of Amores Perros and Babel. Playing Riggan Thompson, a once popular actor famous for his superhero films, Michael Keaton gives a phenomenal, one in a lifetime performance. His character yearns to make it back into the limelight, this time as the writer director of a labor of love Broadway play based on the Raymond Carver short story "What We Talk About when We Talk About Love."

Riggan might be a decent stage actor and might have even nailed it as a playwright, but his inner voice, the thunderous growl of his alter-ego Birdman overwhelms his entire on-the-edge present existence.  Even when he is in the lotus position, meditating in his underwear, and levitating off the ground in his dressing room of the St James Theater, his former incarnation is constantly taking over, overcrowding his mind.

The film is an expressionistic backstage journey through Riggan's mind as it slowly begins to drift south throughout the play's previews. Magnificently photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki, who won an Oscar last year for the cinematography of Gravity, the film gives the appearance that it was shot in one long, continuous take: no doubt, the director's homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, which pulled the same balancing act trick back in 1948.

Birdman is also referential to a host of artistic icons, and particularly right at home when it channels the Magical-Realism of 1960s Latin American literature. Riggan is able to levitate and make objects smash to the ground with a wave of his hand like any one of the Buendía children in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. He is also able to soar up to the skies, in the middle of a colossal cgi fracas, and defeat a winged gigantic creature who threatens to destroy Manhattan from the rooftops, like a latter-day King Kong.

But it is the performances in this backstage drama that propel this film forward. Think of Birdman as a magical-realist All About Eve but with the ghost of an action hero and references to Roland Barthes and Jorge Luis Borges. Not only is Michael Keaton the perfect actor to play a former action hero movie star searching for a come back vehicle (its been almost thirty years since the release of Tim Burton's Batman), but Edward Norton manages to play a fictionalized version of himself, with all the complexities that those in the know say he brings to a set.  Emma Stone and Naomi Watts also shine, as well as Zach Galifianakis, playing against type, as Keaton's feet-on-the-ground manager.

Birdman is a smash hit in quite a lot of levels, and it will certainly bring Academy Award nominations for many categories. I predict an Oscar for Mr. Iñárritu's fascinating, multi-faceted screenplay, and without a doubt, another statuette in a row for Mr. Lubezki's amazing cinematography that I predict will be talked about and studied by future filmmakers for years to come.