Thursday, July 30, 2015

Film Review: The Interview

The Interview
  • Publisher: Columbia
  • Studio: Point Grey Pictures
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Release: 25 December 2014
  • Directors: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg
  • Producers: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, James Weaver
  • Writer: Dan Sterling
Folks, I've been a North Korea watcher for quite a while now, especially since Kim Jong-eun took the reins of the Hermit Kingdom at the end of 2011.  I've got so much to say about the subject that I'd prefer to save it for a separate editorial, but I'll give you this much to start off with: I hate the North Korean regime the most out of all the geopolitical entities in this world.  More than Vladimir Putin's Russia, more than Red China, more than al-Qaeda or The Artist Formerly Known As al-Qaeda.  Possibly combined.  But you already knew that.  So when I heard that a movie, known as The Interview, was in the works which depicted James Franco and Seth Rogen on a mission to assassinate Kim Jong-eun, you can imagine I tuned in.  Sure, I wasn't expecting the movie to be any good, but it was relevant to my interests.

But then Sony Pictures got hacked, and The Interview's Christmas 2014 release was cancelled.  You can bet I was disappointed from it all, and then some.  And for me, this wasn't just about wanting to see the movie.  I am of the strong conviction that North Korea directed, if not orchestrated, the hack attack, and by capitulating to their government's demands to have the film pulled, Sony set a dangerous precedent.  The North Korean government mouthpieces, primarily their news agency and UN ambassadors, have long fallen back on boisterous bluster to the point of, or so I assumed, no one being able to take them seriously.  But for Sony to have taken them seriously, for once, means that this could happen again.  So to speak, the bar has been lowered.  Or raised.  Or... something.  Let me tell you something, if I were in the same position of power, I certainly wouldn't be inclined to take the same action.  Sure, the hackers threatened terrorist actions to theatres that would show the film, and what they already did was unprecedented, but real talk -- did you actually think they would be able to carry out something like that?  Speaking of which, hackers, you don't call yourselves "Guardians of Peace" and then threaten to re-enact 9/11, which is pretty much the opposite of peace.  That is the same kind of [noun] North Korea pulls on a regular basis, so if the shoe fits...

I happened to be out on holiday as this drama unfolded, and was prepared to write an editorial on the subject when I got back.  (Which I'm sort of already doing.)  But on the day I left for home, Christmas Eve in fact, I heard the news that Sony would be releasing the film in question after all!  Primarily to digital stores with a very small physical presence, but it was something!  So you can bet your sweet bippy I bought it when it went online the next day, and I regret nothing (other than not holding out for the special edition DVD).

But lost in the discussion is perhaps the most important question of all:

Is the movie any good?

Well, that's what I'm here to find out.  Our movie starts out with an episode of Skylark Live, a talk show hosted by a mister Dave Skylark (James Franco), and run behind the scenes by his producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen).  Dave is apparently very good at what he does, managing to get Eminem (played by himself) to admit his (assumedly fictional) homosexuality on live television, but focusing so much on soft news has driven Dave into something of a rut.  So as his thousandth episode rolls around, he makes plans to land an interview with Kim Jong-eun (Randall Park), who as it happens is also big fan of Skylark Live.  But then the CIA gets wind of their plans, and under the handling of a miss Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), Dave and Aaron's interview turns into an assassination mission.  Hilarity ensues.

The Interview's wit and intelligence is somewhere along the lines of the Austin Powers sequels.  Sure, there's a lot of lowbrow stuff to dig through.  At one point, for example, Aaron has to run out into a field at night, to pick up a small, CIA drone-launched, package.  And when the guards (and a tiger) close in on his position, Aaron is forced to hide the device rectally.  However, The Interview also takes steps to intelligently portray more aspects of North Korea, contrasting the images the government tries to push upon itself and others against the reality on the ground.  The very first scene in the movie is a little girl singing a "patriotic" song about slaughtering Americans in increasingly gratuitous detail.  In another instance, when Dave and Aaron get the "red-carpet" treatment upon their arrival in Pyongyang, their limousine "happens to" stop next to a well-stocked grocery store, just as they were trying to discuss the country's state of famine.  Dave visits the store later on, only to discover the shelves were just a mural painted on an empty wall.

In this regard, the standout moment of the film, for me, was the titular interview with Dave and Jong-eun.  Both of them make valid points at first, with Dave asking why North Korea doesn't feed its 25-million population, and Jong-eun blaming it on Western sanctions.  (For the record, I consider that argument as bull[noun] on Kim's part.  The inner workings of North Korea's economy are opaque, but to my understanding, nearly all investments into the country has a habit of ending up used for the leader's personal luxuries, weapons of mass destruction, state-sponsored crimes, and perhaps even support of foreign terrorism.  Heck, even food aid gets taken by their soldiers before they let the civilians have the rest, if at all.)  And then Jong-eun soils himself because... funny.

But then, there's the nuclear programme.  I was a little disappointed when the finale involved an attempted nuke launch, for a number of reasons.  One, in terms of the plot it gets dropped upon us by surprise.  Two, I'm not convinced that their ICBM or (not "and") nuclear weapons capability, as it stands as of this writing, is any threat to speak of.  And three, for the aforementioned reason, I wish our own news/media would devote less attention to North Korea's nukes in favour of other issues, for example the concentration camp system.  Of course, the portrayals of North Korea found within this movie may not convey all the subtleties of that society, such as what their everyday citizens actually think of their own leaders or others, but the regime's strictness being what it is, I'd understand if the writers weren't able to capture those opinions in person.  If I got to write the screenplay for this movie, I'd replace the whole nuke-launch ending with some sort of grassroots revolution, where the Korean people are inspired to depose the Kim regime with minimal guidance from Uncle Sam.  But who cares, I asked in sarcasm mode, isn't it more cathartic to see real-life bad guys get blowed up?  ...What?  It is.  Don't try to act like it isn't.

You may have noticed that this review had less to say on the movie itself, and more on its context as a depiction of my most-hated nation of the post-Cold War era.  But, I honestly don't have much to say about it otherwise.  I once said that The Wind Rises had become, to me, less of an actual product and more of a personal icon, but that description could more aptly apply to The Interview.  Maybe I've just taken in so much knowledge from what the West has been able to gleam about North Korea that nothing in that department surprises me anymore.  Maybe I was expecting more to do with the concentration camp system, for example.  But, you know what?  Neither does The Interview go in the opposite direction, cartoonishly portraying the country as just one man and his missiles.  Put it next to Team America: World Police, which is pretty much just that, and it shows how our understanding of North Korea has evolved over the past decade.  At this rate, we might even be able to shift the discussion of North Korea away from the easier, more news-worthy topics to more meaningful ones.  Except that didn't happen, because the Charlie Hebdo shootings happened just weeks afterward, and the capricious news media being what it is, everyone seemed to forget all about North Korea.  But not this blogger.

This is IchigoRyu.

You are the resistance.

+ Presents a relatively nuanced view of North Korea.
+ Dave's inner struggle as an evolving artist.
+ Kim Jong-eun gets blowed up.
- Occasional lowbrow comedy.
- A (personally) disappointing ending.

The Call: 65% (C)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Anime Review: Totally Spies!

Totally Spies!
  • Studio: Marathon 
  • Network: TF1 (FRA), Teletoon (CAN), Cartoon Network (USA) 
  • Air Dates: 3 November 2001 - 2014* 
  • Episodes: 156* 
  • Creators: Vincent Chalvon-Demersay, David Michel 
*As of this writing, the 6th season has not yet aired in the United States and may or may not have aired in Canada. Concrete information on this show, including its recent airdates, is sparse.

Ladies and gentlemen, I've teased this review a number of times when I started this blog, but I've never been able to work up the material to finish it. But with the Strawberry Dragon Project's 5-year anniversary looming this month, I figure it would be a suitably symbolic time to get it out of the way. So let's do this: it's time to review Totally Spies!.

Back in the early 2000s, Western culture went through some sort of spy-fiction boom in movies, TV, and video games. I'm not completely sure why; maybe it had something to do with the James Bond franchise returning from hiatus in 1995, and it took a little more time to set in. These stories sought to copy the "exciting" surface elements of latter-day Bond, but threw the important stuff like characterisation to the wayside. This movement gave us options for both grown-up (xXx with Vin Diesel) and younger (Agent Cody Banks with Frankie Muniz) audiences, and few if any were rembered fondly in the long run. Heck, even the Bond franchise itself ended up feeling like one of those wannabes at some point. If you wanted anything with any depth of characters or plot, you'd have to turn to sleeper hits like the Bourne trilogy (i.e. The Bourne Identity with Matt Damon). Thankfully, it was those very sleeper hits which shaped the direction of Bond itself when it came back from yet another hiatus, in 2006's Casino Royale with Daniel Craig. But for the most part, we had to console ourselves with junk like Totally Spies!.

The titular spies are three high-school girls from Beverly Hills. Their numbers are Sam (EN: Jennifer Hale, FR: Claire Guyot), Clover (EN: Andrea Baker, FR: Fily Keita), and Alex (EN: Katie Leigh / Katie Griffin, FR: Céline Mauge). Sam is the smart straight-man and unofficial leader of the team, Clover is the most boy- and fashion-crazy out of the three, and Alex is the sporty tomboy who occasionally bridges the gaps during Sam and Clover's arguments. The girls' personalities do overlap from time to time, as is common among friends (I assume), but for the most part they never evolve past their archetypes, if not stereotypes. And annoying archetypes, if not stereotypes, at that. Maybe it's just my educated masculine upbringing talking, but the way these girls blow their civilian-life issues so out of proportion makes it harder for me to sympathise with them. Clover especially is the worst in this regard -- I'm pretty sure she even complains about breaking a fingernail at some point. That's the level of intelligence we're dealing with here, peoples.
The many Clover-vs-Mandy arguments are showdowns of annoying versus annoying.

As is common for this type of "Get up, go to school, save the world" show (see also: the Mystical Ninja anime I reviewed way back when I started this blog), the episodes are framed by B-plots centred around dilemmas in the girls' public lives. Most of them feature Mandy (EN: Jennifer Hale, FR: Céline Mauge), a girl much like Clover, except snobby and antagonistic. Also she looks like Rebecca Black, but without the kind personality that made her crimes against music forgivable. (Man, I really must have mellowed out on "Friday" since then...). If nothing else, she serves to make Clover and company look good by comparison. There are also the numerous anonymous hunks whom our girls attempt various degrees of shacking-up with, but a scant few show up in more than one episode. The most recurring boyfriend prospect is the long/tan/handsome David, but he never gets the chance to have any real character development, and is essentially discarded after the first few seasons. He's basically this show's answer to Sylvia Trench. (Remember her? James Bond's on-again-off-again girlfriend from the first two movies?)

But the "Save the world" part of this "Get up, go to school, save the world" setup is the meat and potatoes of this show. The girls' civilian troubles must, inevitably take a backseat to actual international crises, delivered by their handler Jerry (EN: Jess Harnell / Adrian Truss, FR: Jean-Claude Dunda) and his organisation. Said organisation is saddled with the name of World Organization Of Human Protection, commonly pronounced as WOOHP. *sigh* ...Yeah, apparently this show's writers have a propensity for painful acronyms. If you're hoping for anything of the calibre of "Every Villain Is Lemons (EVIL)" from that one SpongeBob episode, don't. It's even more painfully unfunny then how, EVERY -- SINGLE -- EPISODE, they get summonned into WOOHP headquarters by way of getting sucked into a trap door or some such hidden hole. If you didn't have the right context on hand, you could imagine that WOOHP is in fact a police state that somehow took over the Los Angeles metropolitan area. (By the way, do you think Jerry might be a fan of Excel Saga? This show would be more interesting if our girls took orders from Il Palazzo, I tell you what.)

Furthering the episode-to-episode routine, Jerry follows up just about every mission briefing with a pre-selected array of gadgets; purpose-built devices incorporated into objects which would would look normal on a normal person of their type. And yes, this also gives them opportunities for more painful acronyms, most egregiously with the dive-helmet called the "UPWATI". I warned you there'd be more. First of all, what's the matter, never heard of on-site procurement? Like they made such a big deal out of in Metal Gear Solid? I swear, these gals wouldn't last a minute on Shadow Moses Island. Seriously, I do have some constructive criticism to this setup. My biggest problem is that it's all so contrived. Jerry always picks out the gadgets for them, without any input from the spies themselves, and they all serve a coincidentally specific use in furthering their investigation or escaping from a deathtrap. And yeah, I know James Bond did the same thing too, but he never gave the impression of being helpless without them. Said impression cannot be made of the titular Totally Spies. If I had control over this show, I'd let the girls pick their own gadgets, making them think about the situations that would present themselves ahead. Or is that too dangerously close to character development for this show? Also, can we address the vivid green, red, and yellow catsuits the spies or their superiors thought would be a suitable uniform? I guess I know why they get captured so often, then.
They may come through in the end, but our girls are generally terrible spies,
in case those bright catsuits didn't tip you off already.
From then on, episodes generally follow a pattern of investigation, infiltration, discovering the villain-of-the-day, getting caught by the villain-of-the-day, escaping the deathtrap-of-the-day by way of gadgets, and finally catching the villain-of-the-day. I'm not saying they should tie every episode to one another in an ongoing arc. And I'm not saying that monster-of-the-day (or in this case, villain-of-the-day) shows can't be good, either. Neon Genesis Evangelion was at its best when it did the monster-of-the-day thing, as you may recall me saying. But Totally Spies! just doesn't have the right stuff to pull it off. Whereas some of these shows have some kind of evil organisation tying the monsters-of-the-day together and providing the promise of some kind of climax to look forward to, Totally Spies! doesn't have this, for the most part. I say "for the most part" because the later seasons introduce a team of recurring villains known as... LAMOS. Ladies and gentlemen, you have my permission to facepalm.

 Anyway, the villains at least get some sort of backstory, usually in the form of them having been shot down for a job/role/date/whatever, and them exacting excessive revenge via some form of doomsday device, and not practical ones either. Over the course of the series, the villains use (real?) stage magic, extraterrestrial aliens, and a satellite-mounted freeze ray with intent to freeze the entire Earth over, so yeah, this show plays hard and loose with the idea of reality. You'd think I shouldn't complain about realism, as I have a webcomic which incorporates magic into an otherwise realistic historical setting. But some things are beyond my limits of disbelief suspension, like how a gourmet food critic is entitled to complain when served a 200-ounce steak.

For the record, I'm still keeping the "Anime Review" tag in the title of this article despite this show not having been conceived in Japan, but rather the French and/or Canadian studio Marathon. Coincidentally, French also uses the word "animé" to refer to animated productions as does Japanese (minus the accent on the 'e'). It's furtherly funny I should mention this, because Totally Spies! does rely heavily on the Japanese anime aesthetic for its design and art style. It's "Animesque", if you will. It's a shame they did it so sloppily though, as not only does the animation lack the fluidity of motion and dynamic scene composition I've come to associate with Japanese anime at its best, but animation and continuity errors are fairly common if you look. I'm not normally the type to look out for this sort of thing, but the one scene where Clover and Mandy are arguing with their voices accidentally switched (no seriously, this is a thing that happens) is yet another of those goofs which are beyond even my tolerance. Besides, Marathon forgot the most important lesson they should've taken from Japanese anime, and that is... not to sexualise teenagers. I mean, the other most important lesson: to have actual character development.

Between the villains, heroes, and side characters, I'm only steps away from giving this show the "Eight Deadly Words": "I don't care what happens to these people". So why do I keep watching it? Because Totally Spies! is a prime example of a guilty pleasure. If nothing else, the spy girls themselves are pretty, and say what you want about them being materialistic fashionistas, at least the animators gave them more than a handful of outfits! Plus, there are occasional shake-ups to the formula, and it is those moments which make for the series' more memorable episodes. But most of the time, it sticks to its formula, to its detriment. There's nothing that shows the girls are evolving in their spycraft over the course of the show. Such may be the curse of the monster-of-the-week format, but that's no excuse for not trying. You could also brush off its shortcomings as the curse of childrens' entertainment, but that's not a good excuse either. I'd consider Kaleido Star to be kid-friendly, and it has some of the best characterisation I've ever seen in a TV show. And whilst on the business of comparing Totally Spies! to other cartoons, let me close by reminding you that when this show came out, it competed with the Disney Channel's girl-power spy-fi show, Kim Possible, which was considerably more genre-savvy, gender-inclusive, and didn't use [verb]ing acronyms for everything. I think that says all you need to know about Totally Spies!: apparently, some of the most telling critiques come not from the work itself, but from contrasting it with other works.

+ The few episodes which shake up the formula shine even brighter for it.

- Little in the way of character development.
- Annoying main and side characters.
- The stories adhere strictly to a formula.
- The animation is barely up to par when it isn't goofing up.

Acting: 2 rainbow catsuits out of 5
Writing: 1 rainbow catsuits out of 5
Animation: 2 rainbow catsuits out of 5
Visual Design: 3 rainbow catsuits out of 5
The Call: 50% (D)