Film reviews: The Interview | Selma | Still Life

ITS plot caused a diplomatic crisis, but The Interview is no laughing matter and Seth Rogen knows it, writes Alistair Harkness
Seth Rogen (centre) with co-star James Franco in The Interview. Picture: ContributedSeth Rogen (centre) with co-star James Franco in The Interview. Picture: Contributed
Seth Rogen (centre) with co-star James Franco in The Interview. Picture: Contributed

The Interview (15)

Director: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg

Starring: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park, Diana Bang

Star rating: **

The last time Seth Rogen got behind a camera with his co-director and long-time writing partner Evan Goldberg, they made a film in which Rogen, James Franco and a bunch of their Hollywood pals played versions of themselves holed up in LA facing down the end of the world. Indulgent but fitfully funny, the big meta gag at the centre of This is the End was that it effectively riffed on the “This guy?” brand of comedy that has made Rogen a star. Frequently cast as the big-hearted doofus who finds himself thrust into situations for which he’s wholly unprepared, the film simply dispensed with character names altogether and allowed Rogen to imagine how “Seth Rogen” would handle the impending apocalypse.

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There’s a grim irony, then, that Rogen should have found himself at the centre of a real diplomatic crisis with his latest collaboration with Goldberg and Franco. The Interview may have been intended as another slyly imbecilic high-concept farce, but the furore inspired by the decision to build the film’s plot around assassinating North Korea’s president Kim Jong-un has been unprecedented. Since the first trailer emerged last summer, war has been threatened, a major entertainment conglomerate has been brought to its knees, cyber-terrorism has been made scarily real, cinema chains have been threatened with violence, and Barack Obama has urged Americans to “go to the movies” as part of their civic duty.

Save for one independent cinema opting to screen it over Christmas in the US, however, the theatrical release was scrapped and the film debuted online instead (to huge profits). But now that it’s out in the world, and in UK cinemas this weekend, it’s hard to reconcile the consequences of its production with the actual content of the film. Incendiary only in its willingness to mock a sitting world leader in wilfully idiotic fashion, it doesn’t (as had been feared) make fun of the suffering of the North Korean people, nor does it particularly celebrate American triumphalism. Though by no means a devastatingly clever satirical savaging in the mould of Team America: World Police, Rogen, Goldberg and their co-screenwriter Dan Sterling (a former producer of The Daily Show) are at least sensitive to the broad-strokes issues at play and lampoon western susceptibility to media manipulation as much as they do North Korea’s autocratic use of it to maintain order.

Where the film falls down is in the actual yuks department: it really isn’t very funny. Overly reliant on tiresome bromance and fish-out-of-water clichés, the absurdity of the central premise is rendered depressingly familiar by gay panic jokes, groaning pop-culture references (Katy Perry and The Lord of the Rings are repeatedly invoked) and scatological humour that never really hits its target. The biggest liability in this department is Franco. Cast as Dave Skylark, a none-too-bright celebrity talk show host who has thrived by being fully attuned to the click-bait sensibility that garners ratings, he has no sense of how to make the character appealing, especially as he’s tasked by the CIA to kill Kim Jong-un after landing an exclusive interview with him for his show (the Supreme Leader, apparently, is a huge fan).

Although the notion of sending an idiot to assassinate a world leader isn’t without comedic promise (Zoolander worked it to perfection), it does require a certain charming naivety for it to work, particularly when we’re expected to believe that said idiot assassin would also be appealing to women (Lizzy Caplan has the thankless task of being the CIA handler to whom Dave will devote much of his energies trying to win over). Unfortunately Franco gurns his way through the film as if he’s doing some arch, self-aware tribute to Jerry Lewis, but never wants us to forget that he knows how really, really good-looking he is. It’s irritating in the extreme and when Dave bonds with Kim over shared daddy issues and a mutual love of margaritas, tanks and the Katy Perry song Firework, Franco’s dilettantism is thoroughly exposed by the ease with which co-star Randall Park makes Kim feel like a fully formed and believable character within this absurd world.

Unlike Franco, Rogen is innately likeable and it’s easier to enjoy his turn as Dave’s exasperated producer. But that’s also part of the problem. Just as in the film his character is wrestling with the knowledge that he should be doing something more worthwhile with his life than working with this moron, as a filmmaker and performer it feels like Rogen is coasting here. That’s too bad because while The Interview has assured itself a place in history for the trouble it has caused, a sharper and funnier film would have met that trouble head on instead of being overtaken by it.

Selma (15)

Director: Ava DuVernay

Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Wilkinson

Star rating: ****

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The controversy surrounding Selma’s snubbing in this year’s Oscar race – it picked up a best picture nod and one for best song, but nothing else – seems depressingly fitting given the subject of the film. Kicking off with Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) winning the Nobel Peace Prize following the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Selma begins at a point in history where white society believed the country’s racial problems were somehow solved, no further action required. What’s immediately powerful about Selma is how audaciously director Ava DuVernay disavows us of this notion. Briefly winding the clock back, she provides some immediate context for what’s coming with a devastating recreation of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four little girls, then cuts to a scene depicting a racially motivated act of bureaucracy designed to prevent future activist Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey) from registering to vote. Taken together this opening salvo illustrates how little real difference the Civil Rights Act made to the furthering of democracy among people of colour in a country where segregation had supposedly been made illegal. Consequently it raises the stakes for the film, which depicts the struggles of Dr King and the rest of the civil rights movement to mount what would become the historic marches from Selma to Montgomery that would ultimately lead to the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. What the film does really well here is dramatise not just the ensuing conflicts, but the compromises that had to be made. King’s contretemps with President Lyndon B Johnson are fascinating to watch, with Oyelowo brilliant at depicting King’s shrewdness as a political operator, and Tom Wilkinson fantastic at nailing both the coarseness of LBJ and illuminating this most beleaguered of president’s frustrations with a movement he fundamentally supported, but wanted to help on his timetable, not theirs. But what’s also great about Oyelowo is that he doesn’t play Dr King as an icon. Unable to use the famous speeches (the King estate had already licensed them to another production company for a film slated to be produced by Steven Spielberg), he’s freed from the temptation to grandstand, playing King as a man, one who is far from perfect, but driven by an innate understanding of what’s right for his time and place. DuVernay is good, too, at showing the divisions within the movement, particularly those caused by King’s already elevated position, and her handling of horrifying violence meted out to King and his followers is suitably visceral and intense. As such, Selma is far from standard Oscar bait; too bad that a year on from 12 Years a Slave, that seems to have counted against it.

Shaun the Sheep: The Movie (U)

Director: Mark Burton, Richard Starzack

Voices: Justin Fletcher, John Sparks

Star rating: ****

Spun off from Wallace and Gromit’s A Close Shave into a hit animated show for tiny tots, the title character of Aardman’s latest big screen adventure may not be especially familiar to grown-ups, but that hardly matters. The Bristol-based animation studio’s signature style and wit is very much present and correct, alleviating any worries that a dialogue-free movie about a sheep is a plasticine step too far. Charming, funny and fast-paced, its joke-stuffed plot (keep an eye-out for a Banksy gag) revolves around Shaun and his fellow sheep attempting to rescue their owner, The Farmer, after an elaborately engineered attempt to have a day off from the toil of Mossy Bottom Farm leaves him with amnesia and working as a hair stylist in the big city. Boasting more grunting than Mr Turner, the film’s decision to reduce its human characters’ speech to approximations of the noises a sheep might hear reinforces the lovely way it manages to get inside its hero’s head to present a sheep’s eye-view of the world that is quaintly British.

Pelo Malo (Bad Hair) (15)

Director: Mariana Rondón

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Starring: Samuel Lange Zambrano, Samantha Castillo, Nelly Ramos

Star rating: ***

Gender politics in Venezuela are subtly and sensitively explored in this moving tale of a hard-working single mother panicking about her nine-year-old son’s more flamboyant tendencies. Living on a Caracas housing estate, nine year-old Junior (Samuel Lange Zambrano) has convinced himself that his curly, springy afro is getting in the way of what he desires most in the world: becoming a pop singer. Writer/director Mariana Rondón uses Junior’s obsession with trying to achieve his desired smooth, silky look to quietly explore the way kids start figuring out their sexual identity before they’re really conscious of what it is – and she smartly offsets this with a complex portrait of his mother as someone inadvertently pushed by circumstance into assuming a more macho role in their household.

Still Life (12A)

Director: Uberto Pasolini

Starring: Eddie Marsan, Joanne Froggatt, Karen Drury

Star rating: **

A scrupulously tasteful drama about lives lived in quiet desperation, Still Life mines the irony of its title as it focuses on a council worker who spends his days tending to the affairs of those who have died alone. Played by Eddie Marsan with a dignity the film’s maudlin approach doesn’t really deserve, the lonely protagonist is a sort of detective for the deceased who sees his own life reflected back at him in the fate of those he investigates. When he loses his job, he sees in his final case a chance for salvation, but the film holds too few surprises to be particularly profound.

Jupiter Ascending (12A)

Director: Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski

Starring: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne

Star rating: ***

Dumped in the February deadzone, the Wachowksi’s latest sci-fi opus has an undeniable whiff of failure about it, but it’s also endearingly campy, spectacularly staged and surprisingly entertaining. Mila Kunis takes the lead as Jupiter, the unwitting genetic reincarnation of – stay with me here – the Queen of the Universe, whose ownership of the Earth is now being contested by her three surviving power-hungry offspring. With Channing Tatum playing a human-lycanthropic hybrid (he looks like a buff Mr Tumnus), and current Oscar favourite Eddie Redmayne ridiculing himself with his rasping turn as the chief villain, it’s a film that seems to be unintentionally channelling the spirit of Flash Gordon. And is all the better for it.