Nation of Beancounters

*The Interview* is a better movie than it looks

Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on December 30, 2014

Major Spoilers – heck, I’m assuming you’ve seen the movies, because everyone and their dog has.

Sue me, I’m a sucker for movies that subvert mook tropes.

Also called “baddies”, “goons,” “scrubs,” “drones,” “small fry,” “flunkies,” “pawns,” “toadies,” “grunts,” “minions,” “lackeys,” “underlings,” “henchpersons,” and “cannon fodder”.

… mooks serve as Filler and a backdrop to the truly climactic moments of an action franchise while also ensuring that in-between things are kept lively.

… In addition to accentuating the real villains, mooks also help establish the heroes, especially their combat skills, as their lack of Nominal Importance allows them to be beaten, mauled, shot or otherwise disposed of in creative ways without guilt.

(Not to be confused with the racial slur against Italians.)

My favorite mook is the guy who bites off Rapoport’s hand. He realizes that there’s something wrong with the interview, overrides orders from his superiors, resists two armed opponents, gets up when he’s knocked down, nearly defeats two armed opponents, and dies in the the line of duty. And he’s a technician.

Another great mook: the guy who, as soon as the great leader pulls a gun on Skylark, stubs out his cigarette, grabs his weapon, and starts gunning down fellow soldiers to save Skylar and Rapoport. As far as he knows, he’s going to face down the entire North Korean army to defend two foreigners and a puppy. Baller.

And finally, there’s the guy who has to push the button that launches the nuclear bombs. You can read the conflict off his face – push the button and start a nuclear war; don’t push the button and get shipped off to a labour camp with his family. For a moment I imagined myself in his place – could I pretend that I pushed the button but something went wrong? Should I pry open the back of panel and break something to back my story?

What was the last movie to put you in the head of an unnamed goon with 30 seconds of screentime?

The Interview assigns agency to a lot of people who typically don’t have it. Top of the list: Sook. In pretty much every action/spy movie ever made, the villain’s Sexy Female Minion No.1 exists solely to be seduced by our hero and turned away from the dark side. Five minutes after the climax, Rapoport realizes that he’s the one who’s been seduced by Sook, and turned away from the original CIA plot to one of her choosing. The revelation also subverts stories about white men swooping in and saving the natives who, obviously, can’t solve their own problems.

(Whenever I wonder why Seth Rogen wants to alienate the Academy, I remind myself that this is the organisation that gave an Oscar to Avatar. Who cares what they think?)

Speaking of the natives, did you notice how the North Koreans are all insanely competent? Ko homes in on the poison, eats it, and is rightly suspicious of questions regarding his health. The palace guards catch Rogen as he wanders the grounds and strip him naked, just failing to find the payload. When the titular interview goes starts going sideways for Kim Jong-Un – who has presumably never answered a question in his life – he skillfully turns it against Skylark: “Maybe what you should be asking is – how have I been able to my country so well-nourished despite the harsh and unjust economic sanctions imposed by the United States? Don’t you know that the US has more incarcerated people per capita than North Korea?”

These subversions are all the more impressive when you compare the way North Koreans are portrayed in the film to the way they’re viewed by much of the world. Kim Jong-Un isn’t a batshit crazy man-child with delusions of grandeur. He’s an adroit media manipulator with a talent for making people love him. The North Korean people aren’t mindless conformists who blindly worship Kim Jong-Un – they’re human beings capable of duty, ambivalence, defiance, and cunning. Most satires operate by turning real, complex people into caricatures. The Interview turns caricatures into real, complex people.

And makes a lot of jokes about assholes.

From Eminem revealing that he’s gay and that “Hector and his rectum are real”, to Skylark wondering if Kim Jong-Un has a butthole (being a God and all), to Rapoport shoving a missile up his ass, to my favorite mook being skewered by a joy stick, to Kim Jong-Un shooting a mouthy soldier a new one – this movie is obsessed with assholes.

This mixture of profundity and vulgarity is common is movies by Rogen et al. Neighbors looked at the transition from youth to adulthood, and captured the frustration of those who have made it as well as the fears of those who are about to. It also made a lot of dick jokes. This Is The End was a fable about sin and atonement – with rape jokes.

There’s something attractive about their defiant crudeness, which feels like some sort of filter. To ask them “was it necessary to use the word cunt?” is to elicit a “yes, to scare away people like you.” They’ll keep making their kind of movies and if you can’t see the how clever, unusual, and funny they are because you were distracted by the cussing, too bad.

Alas, while The Interview is sometimes clever and unusual, it is hardly ever funny. There are some good moments (“Some pictures just came out where it looks like McConaughey is fucking a goat!” “Get the goat! I got some questions for that goat.”) but most jokes fall flat. People don’t look down on fart jokes because they’re vulgar, but because they’re easy. In real life, especially if you’re young, any reference to sex or body fluids will get a chuckle. We expect slightly more from slowly written works of fiction. When you’ve got months to write and re-write a script, there’s nothing impressive about using orifices as a punch line. Surprise is the essence of humor, and no-one is surprised when this particular team cracks a joke about being “fucked by RoboCop.”

Ultimately, The Interview isn’t a good movie. But it deserves more credit than it’s getting for resisting a great many bad Hollywood habits. Perhaps it’s a package deal – you have to be the kind of person who defies good Hollywood aesthetics to be capable of defying bad Hollywood narratives.

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*Interstellar*

Posted in Uncategorized by Navin Kumar on November 13, 2014

Major Spoilers

I enjoyed the time dilation, which fits comfortably in both hardcore SFF (e.g. Speaker for the Dead) and Nolan’s own oeuvre e.g. Inception. The robots, spacescapes and alien landscapes are highly original and  constitute the best parts of the film. On the other hand, the pacing is unusually bad, too slow at some points and too fast at others. Cutting out the in-universe injunction against space travel and the faff about love connecting people across dimensions would greatly improve the film.

It’s an uneven film, but it will age well. It reminds me of Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey, both of which are significantly more difficult than Interstellar but are now part of science fiction canon. It had one of the most interesting paradoxes I’ve seen in recent science fiction – you need data from within a black hole to understand how to manipulate gravity but you need to manipulate gravity to get data from within a black hole. The resolution of this paradox by beings who cannot directly communicate with humanity is at the core of the plot.

The story is not difficult to follow. However, the core paradox is revealed late and its significance is never highlighted, so it’s not immediately obvious how disparate things tie-in with each other. This makes the plot difficult to follow, and makes Interstellar uncharacteristically disconcerting for a Nolan film. I see a lot of people reacting to this by looking for non-existent plot holes.

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