Film Review: The Interview

The Interview

Well, Sony and independent theaters finally did the right thing and allowed Americans to watch the new Seth Rogen film, The Interview. The neat thing about seeing this film is that it exists in the unique context of an international incident involving the United States, North Korea, and shadowy computer hackers.

The story about why the film’s release was delayed has played out like some bizarre performance art piece that rivals the film itself in it’s sheer absurdity. The film combined with it’s context has become a separate piece of art. I have to review that separate piece of art, because that’s what I saw, and, at least for me, it was impossible to separate the film from it’s context.

A talk show host and his producer receive an invitation to interview the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, and are recruited by the CIA to assassinate him. It’s a silly premise, but removing any hint of seriousness from the get go opens up the screenplay and let’s the writers roam free in an absurdist wonderland.

There’s also plenty of funny meta-level stuff about the entertainment industry, including a cameo performance by the rap superstar Eminem as a guest on the talk show. By the way, there has been speculation about Eminem’s health based on recent photographs of him. His physical appearance in the movie will do nothing to dispel that speculation. He didn’t look well, even while wearing theatrical makeup.

The Interview has not received glowing reviews from critics, but those reviews were of the film itself, absent the contextual wrap-around of the international incident. I really enjoyed the film and thought it was very funny. The funniest thing about it is that the jokes sort of get mixed up with the over-the-top propaganda coming out of North Korea about the film. For example, the film opens with a young North Korean girl singing a patriotic song in Korean. The lyrics are shown in English subtitles and could have come straight from the North Korean government. That part was hysterical.

Another funny thing about the film (in context) is that it’s primarily a typical Seth Rogen/James Franco buddy movie that doesn’t take the subject matter seriously. The fact that North Korea got so upset about it is farcical. I can only imagine that they didn’t see it, because it actually portrays Kim Jong Un in a fairly sympathetic way, more than would be due if the subject matter was treated seriously.

I bought The Interview rather than renting it. I did that because it’s not just a film; it’s a unique piece of history, and I want to keep it for repeated viewings and future pop-culture references. If you haven’t seen The Interview you should; not out of any sense of patriotic duty, though it is a pure manifestation of the state of American culture; but because it’s a very funny comedy that will have you exiting the theater with a spring in your step.

The independent theater owners who screened it, and Sony Pictures, should be applauded for doing the right thing, albeit belatedly.

The Frog Sings (Not)

MJF Not Singing

Just when I thought that some level of consensus had formed around the death of Eric Garner in New York, I got into quite a discussion while posting comments regarding an article someone forwarded to me.

If you don’t want to read the whole article, the author concludes that he “cannot in good conscience say there was insufficient probable cause to indict Officer Pantaleo for involuntary manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide.” His conclusion is based on a standard of reasonableness as regards the use of force by the police.

So, I posted the following comment in response to the article:

“Thank you. I agree with your analysis. There was a point made on TV the other night, which is that he died as a result of the chokehold, but also chest compression from the weight of the other officers. But Pantaleo was the only one the grand jury looked at. That may be why they didn’t indict him, but it’s still a travesty. Forget, for a minute, about the reasonableness test for cops. I don’t see how anyone can watch that video, hear Garner saying repeatedly that he can’t breathe, and think that continuing the chokehold was OK. Did they think he was lying? If so, on what basis?”

Oh boy. Here’s the string of comments that ensued, along with my replies. The handles of the other posters have been changed.

Other Poster #1: “Did it occur to you that if he could talk he could breath?”

Me: “Yes, that does occur to me. I suppose he could have said “I’m having difficulty breathing.” But it wouldn’t have made any difference so far as the actions of the officer.”

Other Poster #1: “Their actions were the correct actions. He did not die as a result of any type of hold.”

Me: “Then why did the coroner’s report conclude that his death was a homicide? I don’t think the New York coroner’s office is engaging in some sort of subjective, conspiratorial scheme.”

Other Poster #1: “The coroner did not say it was due to a chokehold … And the Grand Jury found no wrongdoing on the part of police … So what would be your point?”

Me: “Homicide means he did not die of natural causes. So I guess my point is that he died as a result of the actions of the police. You can debate whether those actions were criminal, but can you at least acknowledge that their actions caused his death ( which would contradict your earlier post)?”

Other Poster #1: “I am not debating anything…if he complies he lives…he chose not to and was taken down in a very efficient manner…his bad health killed him…but it would have been so easy for him to live…the police are not the bad guys…”

Me: “Well, to me, the notion that it’s OK for the police to cause someone’s death trying to arrest them for selling loose cigarettes is debatable. I respectfully disagree with you, sir.”

Other Poster #2: “Are the police supposed to be psychic now? Were they supposed to just know that Mr. Garner was unarmed and going to have a heart-attack?”

Me: “They knew he was unarmed at the point when he was on the ground. The coroner ruled his death a homicide, which means he wouldn’t have had a heart attack at that particular moment but for the actions of the police.”

That’s the whole string. Is it just me or do these other posters seem completely out to lunch?

The Frog Sings

Michigan J Frog

When I was a kid, I saw a cartoon premised on a frog who lived in a cigar box. The frog would only sing and dance for the person who found the cigar box and opened it. The person unfortunate enough to find the frog would, inevitably, try to make money presenting the frog in theaters, but the frog would never perform in those conditions. The person who found the frog would thus be humiliated and take the frog home, at which point the frog would continue it’s act.

I imagine that people who claim they’ve been abused by the police might feel a bit like the person who found the frog, trying in vain to convince others of their experience. I remembered the cartoon when I saw the video of the police in New York trying to arrest the guy accused of selling loose cigarettes, who died of a heart attack due to his mistreatment.

For once, it seems, most everyone saw the same thing, regardless of race. There are protests going on and the protesters are a diverse group. Also, the protests have been peaceful, which lends added legitimacy.

This is progress. Let’s be happy that the frog is finally singing for a wider audience.

Conference Wrap Up


Last night was the big conference reception at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The reception was nice and I had a chance to visit old friends and make new ones. Alcohol can be a bad habit, but in a social setting it opens people up and sometimes you have good group conversations.

There were two primary topics of conversation: The rape allegations involving Bill Cosby, and President Obama’s executive action regarding those who have entered the United States in violation of immigration law.

With regard to Cosby, the only observation I have is the power of the media. His career has probably been destroyed by allegations several years old. I don’t know if any of the allegations are true, but he was never indicted or convicted of rape. Yet the media was easily able to turn the story of the allegations into a full blown controversy, to the point where two major deals Cosby had for new entertainment were broken.

So far as the immigration reform, I think that the practical implications pale in comparison to the political implications. The people at issue are already here and have been here for many years. There will likely be some marginal difference for them, but if you think about it, they would have been deported already if that was an actual threat. And the fact that they have been here a long time says a lot about their situation; it must be a better life here as an undocumented migrant than if they were to return to their places of origin.

But the political implications are enormous. I’m not a constitutional scholar or anything, but it does seem to me that the President is at least stretching the envelope by not working on immigration reform with Congress. And yes, that’s a two way street, but the irony is that any hope of having immigration reform the old-fashioned way has now been dashed, at least in the short term. And that’s unfortunate, because it’s a real problem that must be dealt with somehow. Even the President acknowledged yesterday afternoon that the action he has taken doesn’t fix the problem.

Polls show that most Americans want immigration reform. Polls also show that they didn’t want the President to do what he did, so it’s a mystery to me why he chose to go it alone.

Anyway, the rest of the conference was a little dry, but it ended at noon. I had plenty of time to drive back to the bay area before the really bad traffic set in.

The Ballot Measures

Well, I’ve read all of the State-wide ballot measures, along with the arguments for and against. If you plan on voting, I encourage all to do the same.

I am going to share my thoughts about them, not with the intention of trying to sway people one way or the other, but simply to engage in a civics conversation.

I’m going to vote yes on ballot measures 1 and 2. My reasoning has less to do with the ballot measures themselves and more to do with the process by which they got on the ballot.

Measures 1 and 2 were placed on the ballot by the State legislature. Both measures were voted on by the legislature, with broad bi-partisan support. Both measures are also supported by the Governor. In a time when governance is defined by gridlock, it seems to me that measures that are voted on by the legislature, receive broad bi-partisan support, and are also supported by the Governor, deserve the support of the electorate as well. In that scenario, it’s nice that the electorate is being included in the decision.

All the other ballot measures are on the ballot through petition. As I said in my previous post, I think that is a flawed process that locks out the very people who have been elected to legislate, so I’m voting no on the rest.

Don’t forget to vote.

Poll-a-pism: An Election Lasting More Than Four Hours

The title is a riff from the commercial for the erectile dysfunction drug, Cialis. Obviously, all elections last more than four hours, but this particular one feels unnaturally lengthy.

I think part of it is specific to California and the sheer, soul-crushing drudgery that flows from the predictable nature of politics here. The coastal counties are dominated by Democrats who are, in turn, supported by public sector unions. The central valley is somewhat more diverse, with some Republicans sneaking into office because they are social conservatives.

The State legislature has a democrat super-majority, which tends to minimize any competition of ideas or policy prescriptions. About the only countervailing force is the democrat governor, Jerry Brown, who has been acting in a more centrist manner than he needs to, given the construct of the legislature. In any event, the current state of political affairs has created a drama-free zone.

Then there is the fact that many of the major policy issues manifest not through the legislature, but through measures placed on the ballot by interest groups. There are six of these state-wide measures on the ballot this year, which means that in addition to ads from candidates, the airwaves and your mail box are filled with ads about the ballot measures. The ads drone on, day after day, to the point where you want to turn off your TV and radio.

I used to think that such ballot measures were a good way to involve the public in setting policy, but have long since concluded that it is very problematic. For one thing, I doubt that most voters read the measures and accompanying analysis. For the most part, the voters’ opinions on the measures are a reaction to the cleverness of the ads, which are often simplistic and misleading.

For example, there’s a measure that would require doctors to be subject to drug and alcohol testing. The ad for the measure shows a doctor in a bar, downing a scotch as his pager vibrates in front of him. The ad does not say anything about the other part of the measure, which increases the cap on malpractice awards three-fold and adjusts it for inflation thereafter. Neat trick, huh? The ad against the measure does the exact opposite, warning voters of increased healthcare costs, but saying nothing about the testing provision.

The other problem with the ballot measure system is that it takes the elected legislature out of the process. They don’t vote as a body on these policy changes. If the elected legislature isn’t interested in making policies addressed by the ballot measures it is probably out of political cowardice, or recognition that the policies speak to a narrow set of interests, or both.

Fortunately, the election is on Tuesday, so our long national nightmare is almost over. Don’t forget to vote.