Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Hours: A Clever Facsimile of a Classic Novel

I first got interested in Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours when it was adapted for a movie in 2002. The movie attracted a lot of attention because it stars three big-time actresses, each in her own story.

Nicole Kidman plays the great novelist Virginia Woolf on the day in 1923 when she begins to write her famous novel Mrs. Dalloway. Her title character, Clarissa Dalloway, a well-adjusted hostess and political wife living in London, is preparing to give a party that evening.

Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf
This and all photos are Internet grabs
Meryl Streep plays a modern adaptation of Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa Vaughn, a well-adjusted hostess living in New York and the 'wife' in a gay marriage in the 1990s. She is preparing to give a party for a dear friend, Richard, who is about to receive a prestigious literary award.

Meryl Streep as Clarissa Dalloway
Julianne Moore plays a depressed and pregnant housewife living in Los Angeles in 1949, Laura Brown, whose young son, Ritchie, is already frightened of life. She is baking a cake for her husband's birthday, and later makes time to read halfway through Mrs. Dalloway.

Julianne Moore as Laura Brown with her young son, Ritchie
Making his novel turn back on itself, Cunningham has the frightened child turn up in Clarissa Vaughn's story as her poet friend, Richard, the one who is about to receive an award. He is off his rocker because he is suffering from AIDS. Richard is an adaptation of a character in Mrs. Dalloway called Septimus Smith, a veteran of World War I whose mind is shattered. He is suffering from PTSD. Both men end up committing suicide.

So there are stories about the author, the characters, and a reader of Mrs. Dalloway. Both the novel and the movie chopped these stories up and tossed them together like a salad, leaving it up to readers and viewers to figure out who's who and what's going on.

You could hardly accuse Cunningham of following a formula for popularity. On the contrary: The Hours is complicated and literary, not usually considered attractive qualities. Moreover, all three stories are about characters who doubt the value of living. The author himself has confessed to being prone to depression.

Yet The Hours was popular even before it was made into a movie; it was adapted for film because it was already popular. Not only that, but there was a big surge in sales of Mrs. Dalloway. Book clubs discussed the correspondences between the two novels, and where they diverge.

So we have two questions: What was Cunningham's motivation for composing this particular novel? And why is it appealing to readers?

Apparently the author's primary motivation was to create an homage to Virginia Woolf, one of the greatest and most under-read authors of the first half of the 20th century. Clearly her decision to end her own life haunted him, and he also felt challenged to imitate her innovative style.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf
Mrs. Dalloway was a ground-breaking, mind-blowing novel. Woolf herself used a trick devised by James Joyce in Ulysses of shaping the novel around the events of a single day—instead of telling a story with a regular plot—and following the inner life, the stream-of-consciousness, of the characters. In his homage, Cunningham used this approach to explore the inner life of three different types of women who live in different places and times.

As a writerly challenge, I can imagine that Cunningham enjoyed working up such a complex literary puzzle, and apparently the puzzle aspect of reading the novel turned out to be a major attraction.

But we also have to look squarely at the subject of depression. Virginia Woolf's depression was caused by bouts of mental illness, and she carried it to the logical extreme of suicide, which Cunningham imagined in detail in a prologue to his novel. In his novel, Clarissa Vaughn's literary friend drops out of a window because of his suffering from AIDS. These are external causes of depression. By contrast, Laura Brown is depressed because she made a bad life choice when she married and hates the role she feels obligated to play; we eventually learn that instead of suicide, however tempting, she chose to re-structure her life, leaving her frightened son behind. Like Laura Brown, Clarissa Vaughn feels constrained by her role in life, but she manages to pull it off by intentionally clinging to the life of the senses, obsessively noticing every detail of her experience.

So the novel was a way for Cunningham to work out reasons to live, to compare the value of living with the temptation of dying. And, therefore, we have to assume that a lot of readers identify with characters suffering from depression and are themselves trying to find some reason for living.

Diagnostically, there seem to be two causes of depression in this novel, discounting organic factors. First, all the characters are trying to shape themselves to meet someone else's expectation, or to convention, or to some impossibly high standard, instead of just being whoever they are without self-doubt and self-criticism. Warping their own behavior and suppressing their own impulses has sucked all the joy out of their lives. Second, all of their thoughts are incredibly convoluted—they watch and evaluate their own thoughts and reactions, and they imagine what others think of them and wonder if it is true, all while precariously trying to do ordinary things. Here's just one example: “She runs down the stairs and is aware (she will be ashamed of this later) of herself as a woman running down a set of stairs, uninjured, still alive.” I hate to think of anyone's mind being so congested.

Besides depression, another aspect of the novel that is trendy is the way it deals with homosexuality. The poet Richard is a talented gay man dying pitifully from AIDS. Clarissa Vaughn is in a gay marriage. Both Virginia Woolf, in the Prologue, and Laura Brown have treasured moments of intimacy with other women, and feelings they must hide. Cunningham treats all these characters sensitively and respectfully, and many readers may be longing to see different approaches to sexuality treated frankly but unsensationally.

The Hours has the pleasures and the drawbacks of Disney World or Las Vegas. It's cunning, clever, and amusing. It's carefully crafted and its themes are relevant. It is also studied, artificial, and contrived.  It is over-wrought and over-worked.

Stylistically, the worst problem with The Hours is excess verbosity. Instead of evoking an environment with a few salient details, Cunningham verbalizes every detail, far more than the character could possibly have noticed or cared about. Instead of describing a feeling with one powerful metaphor, he gives you a half a dozen, until the effect is diluted. It's as though he couldn't decide which wording he liked the best, so he just poured in the whole batch.

After I saw the movie version of The Hours, I was motivated to read the novel, and the novel motivated me to tackle Virginia Woolf, whose work had frightened me in my youth. If you compare her Mrs. Dalloway with The Hours, you see a great work of fiction contrasted with a clever concoction. I read Woolf's novel again not so long ago; click here to read my review: Mrs. Dalloway.

Now that Cunningham is rich and famous (he won the Pulitzer prize in 1999), do you think he still suffers from depression? Does he still struggle hyper-consciously to get through each hour like his characters?

Michael Cunningham
Maybe not. From his publicity still, I'd say he feels pretty smug. However, if he were to suffer from self-doubt (and worry about his self-doubt, and long to feel confident like other writers he knows, and chastise himself for worrying about his self-doubt), I could suggest that he might find life even more satisfying if, instead of writing a clever imitation of someone else's masterpiece, he could try writing his own novel in his own style and his own voice. I think all his elaborate layers of artifice are burying the novel he really needs to write.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Imitation Game: Oscar Formula 101

"Here's a surefire way to point a movie toward an Oscar or two: make the subject a gay guy who is persecuted for his sexuality."

"You could pump that up by making him an aloof intellectual, brilliant but socially inept, you know, like Holmes in Sherlock. That type has a big following currently. Maybe we could even get Benedict Cumberbatch to play the part. It would bring in all the self-styled 'Cumber-bitches.'"

"We should make it the type of thing that appeals to that whole PBS/BBC crowd. No swearing."

"Or only just a little, to punch up the most dramatic scenes."

"No sex."

"We could have a few titillating references to sex organs."

"No violence. Well, maybe a few overheated scuffles."

"No violence? Wait a minute, can a movie score an Oscar nomination without conflict and violence?"

"Instead of interpersonal violence, we could have a war. The Brits are daft about World War II, you know."

"That's a great plan. Anytime the action gets boring we could cut in a lot of old war footage. The old codgers can't get enough of that stuff."

"You know there was a guy like that in British history—a scary brilliant guy who happened to be gay. He was a big hero of the British code-breaking effort during the war, but afterward he was persecuted by the local police for making homosexual advances in public. He's been in the news lately because he was recently pardoned by the queen."

"I'm sure he's resting easier for that. What's the name of this persecuted hero?"

"Alan Turing. His biography was written by Andrew Hodges in 1983."

"Maybe we could get that guy from Chicago, Graham Moore, to adapt it for the screen. He has the Hollywood touch."

"We need someone for the female audience to identify with."

"Like a brainy but beautiful mathematician. Oh, and she has to be well-adjusted and bold, as well."

"We could get a really beautiful actress like Keira Knightley, and then play down her looks, as if she were plain. Heh heh."

And so one day Graham Moore finished reading Hodges' biography of Turing and faced his problem: how to condense a 768-page scholarly tome into a sensational, award-winning script.

And Mr. Moore said to himself, "It seems to me there were three big periods in Turing's life. His teens were messed up because other kids teased him mercilessly, not for being gay, but for being so damn smart, for being different. Then there's the heroic period when he was working on code-breaking at Bletchley Park and saved the Allies' bacon by figuring out what the Germans were going to do before they did it. And then the later shameful period when he was persecuted for living openly as a homosexual, which was then against British law. Maybe I could add some excitement by scrambling these three periods, and throw in a bunch of war scenes as well. Figuring out what is going on would give the viewers a sort of puzzle to solve, like the puzzle of the German Enigma codes."

Thus cinematic history was made. Mr. Moore's script won awards and nominations galore. Benedict Cumberbatch delivered a raw, heart-breaking performance that has everyone performing obeisance. Keira Knightley cast a sweet glow on the whole effort. Critics' reviews and box office receipts were equally gratifying. The LGBT group was ecstatic. Even Marissa Meyer, CEO of Yahoo, and Robert Gates, one time Secretary of Defense, gave the movie a big thumbs up. Everyone was happy.

Keira Knightly, Benedict Cumberbatch making brilliant deductions
while other members of the team observe
Everyone, that is, except those nasty folks who are attached to historical truth. Several researchers have been at pains to point out that it didn't happen like that.

To begin with, Turing did not break the German Enigma encryption device alone. The code-breaking effort went on for several years and hundreds of people were involved, both in England and other Allied countries.

But the most striking divergence from the truth was depicting Turing as being socially maladapted, having no friends and no sense of how to work cooperatively. Most researchers agree that while Turing had conspicuous eccentricities, he was seen by his colleagues as being affable, working well with others, and having a good sense of humor. I mean think about it: Aren't gay men generally both friendly and ironic? I'm not an expert, but the gay men I've met have been exceptionally cordial and sensitive, and inclined to see humor in life as well.

Mathematician and computer pioneer Alan Turing
It is important to note, and accurate, I think, that Turing's sexual preference had little effect on his mental preferences. If he tended to be reclusive, it was because he was obsessed by his research. In my reading of history, I have observed that all sorts of intellectuals, artists and scientists, might also be homosexuals; it's sort of irrelevant.

The final blow that really gives the lie to the whole production is that Turing may not have committed suicide after all. After he was convicted, he was given a choice between prison and so-called "chemical castration," which is basically taking estrogen. In the movie, the treatment makes him too sick to think straight and causes him to commit suicide in desperation. In real life, Turing did innovative work in mathematical biology during his treatment, using himself as a subject, and his treatment ended fourteen months before his death at age 41. The biographer Hodges contends that Turing intentionally ate a poisoned apple, but the editor of Turing's own papers and Director of the Turing Archive, Jack Copeland, says the death may have been accidental, caused by the cyanide fumes produced by one of Turing's experiments; he says the coroner's investigation was faulty.

All the quibblers for truthfulness think that a more accurate rendering of history would have been more interesting. They posit that Turing's real personality was even richer and more heroic than Cumberbatch's character.

But you and I know that nuance does not sell. The Hollywood formula works like a charm if it is done skillfully, and this movie was expertly made. By sensationalizing Turing's story, The Imitation Game brought Alan Turing the level of attention he deserves.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Merry Widow: An Operetta for Merry Hearts

Our hearts were merry as we left our local cinema after viewing the Metropolitan Opera's production of The Merry Widow, presented live in HD. The big attraction to this performance was Renée Fleming, a soprano at the top of her form, who has the big advantage of being gorgeous as well as having a voice like liquid gold. Her performance was stellar. Not only did she bring out the beauty of the music, but her acting was as subtle and convincing as a film star's.

The role she was singing was designed to show off the talents of a mature diva. She plays Hanna, a wealthy and beguiling widow, who has her choice of fawning suitors, in gay Paree at the turn of the 20th century. Instead of being simpering or demanding, Ms. Fleming plays Hanna as gracious but slightly cynical, openly declaring that she knows her biggest attraction is her wealth. And her suitors love her all the more, they say, for her frankness.

Ms. Fleming gets to wear three marvelous costumes, all requiring corsets (when they first came on the market, a certain revealing type of corset was named for this popular operetta). As a widow, she starts out in a black gown with stylish gores.

The mourning gown
All photos in this post are internet grabs.
In the second act, she sings an aria from her homeland, a fictional Balkan country called Pontevedro, and for this she wears a vaguely Germanic looking gown in red and gold brocade.

The Pontevedran gown
In the third act, when she has to shine like a star against the colorful backdrop of a nightclub called Maxim's, she wears gold satin with puffed sleeves, low neckline, and complicated pleats.

The Maxim's gown
Ms. Fleming sings a duet with Kelli O'Hara
Her romantic counterpart is the one man who professes to be disinterested in her, Count Danilo, a dissolute, womanizing government minister with whom she had a romance in her youth; the part was sung by baritone Nathan Gunn. In terms of acting, this part is more demanding than the soprano's. Ms. Fleming gets to be glamorous and sympathetic straight through, but Gunn has to be comical one moment, and dashing the next. Danilo has to have rakish charm, and then give way to whole-hearted love. Mr. Gunn's voice is strong but flexible, his stance is bold, his acting is light and effortless.

Nathan Gunn as Count Danilo
The novelty of the production is that it was designed and directed by Susan Stroman, a very popular Broadway director and choreographer making her debut at the Met. She wanted to do this operetta because there are several opportunities for dancing, and she contrived to add a few more. She used professional dancers for some scenes (like an acrobatic cancan), but she also got all the singers to dance as well. The principal singers danced at Hanna's party in the second act, and in the final scene at Maxim's, several members of the women's chorus rustled up a pretty good cancan, complete with ruffled panties, while singing with their usual polish. All the production aspects—set, costumes, lighting—were attractive and clever without being cumbersome. Well, the jewelry was a little bulky, but …

Member of the Met chorus dancing and singing
Of course, the foundation of the operetta's long popularity is the enchanting music composed by Franz Lehár, an Austro-Hungarian composer; it premiered in 1905. The melodies are light as a feather, effervescent as champagne, sweet as whipped cream. The orchestra was conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, whose manner was so spirited it was almost elfin.

One thing that is unusual for the Metropolitan Opera is spoken dialog. Some operas are sung all the way through, but usually there is a certain amount of vaguely melodic dialog. An operetta, however, depends on spoken banter between the musical numbers. It seemed odd at first, but the cast moved between speaking and singing so easily that I soon accepted it. Although Ms. Stroman loves the big production numbers, she was also very interested in presenting a romance between seasoned lovers, and she directed their spoken scenes with more concern for creating convincing and sympathetic characters than is usual for an opera. This is a feature where Live in HD may actually trump the live performance at the opera house. The Met stage is huge, and intimate banter could get lost, for those in the balcony, for instance, but the HD filming allows for close-up shots.

The aspect that won my heart from the beginning was that the opera was done in English! I couldn't resist reading the English subtitles, but I loved hearing my language sung. Not only was it in English, but the English had funny rhymes ("being sycophantic is not terribly romantic"), alliteration, and other poetic devices. The audience was cracking up and nudging each other. Jeremy Sams gets credit for the English version.

The main plot is about the effort of Baron Zeta to get Hanna to marry someone from her native Pontevedro, in order to keep her fortune in the country, which is facing dissolution otherwise. The Baron was played by veteran baritone Thomas Allen. Zeta is sort of a patriotic buffoon, but Allen's face is remarkably intelligent.

The subplot concerns Baron Zeta's relationship with his much younger wife,Valencienne, who carries on a flirtation with the young Frenchman Rosillon, under the guise of winning his support for her small country. All the other characters are concerned with helping her keep the romance secret from from the deluded baron, and saving their marriage. The role of Valencienne, which requires tricky singing and dancing, was played by Kelli O'Hara, who was trained in opera, but has previously been seen only on Broadway, where she is very popular. The role of Rosillon was played by tenor Alek Shrader; sometimes his performance seemed a little detached, but he was great at devotedly nuzzling Valencienne's neck.

Kelli O'Hara and Alek Shrader
A very strange, non-singing role by a character named Njegus, the Baron's secretary, gave a zany quality to the comedy. Comic actor Carson Elrod played him as the court jester, alternately bumbling and shrewd, but always affected and campy.

If you are a novice to opera, but intrigued, The Merry Widow would be the perfect place to start. It's so easy to like. It is frivolous, but refined. It is popular and sentimental, while being sophisticated and subtle. You come away feeling as merry as a wealthy widow who finally got her way.

If you should feel drawn to The Merry Widow, the opera is being re-broadcast, Wednesday, January 21 at 6:30 at your local cinema. Running time is 3 hours, and the cost is $18, for all ages.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Fading Gigolo: Is it a Vanity Project?

Why would a filmmaker depict himself as a whore, or a 'ho,' as it is expressed in Fading Gigolo, a movie which I found on Netflix? John Turturro, a plausibly good-looking actor in his mid-fifties, wrote and directed a film in which he plays a guy who turns to prostitution when times get tough. Is this some vanity project so Turturro can show the world he's still got the goods? Or does it take a lot of humility to cast yourself in a role that is universally despised and abused?

Turturro plays Fioravante, something like "forward flower" or "flower first" in Italian, and he runs a floundering flower shop. Symbolism alert! What do flowers stand for?

John Turturro as Fioravante, florist and gigolo
in his own movie Fading Gigolo.
Internet grab
Turturro plays the part with maximum restraint; he seems almost wooden. Partly this has to do with portraying the strong and silent stereotype, but partly it is a sort of modesty. He doesn't show off. He doesn't flirt. He doesn't fast-talk. A few shots show off his firm physique, but only distantly, romantically. He has just enough charm to be convincing. And what form does his charm take? He listens; he tunes in; he adapts to his customer's needs, like any good hooker.

Turturro cast his buddy, Woody Allen, in the role of Fioravante's pimp, Murray. After his bookstore goes bust, Murray gets the idea of turning his old pal into a gigolo. This is the perfect role for Allen: Murray is greedy and manipulative, yet he is philosophical, caring, and strangely tender. Allen flows from wisecracks to phobias, and on to gentle coaching and nurturing, so naturally that he seems to be making his lines up as he goes along; he appears to be the character he is portraying. And maybe he is. You could say that as a filmmaker, Allen pimps out the actors he likes, nurtures their talent for the sake of his own gain.

Woody Allen as Murray, pimp, buddy, coach
Internet grab
The first client Murray scores for Fioravante is a licentious and luscious dermatologist, Dr. Parker, played lustily by Sharon Stone. These two have extended scenes of sexual interaction.  After that, Turturro makes very quick work of the sex part of this sex farce. With a handful of quick vignettes, Turturro establishes that Murray is avid and adept at soliciting clients, that Fioravante is up to the challenge, and, by the way, that the flower shop is flourishing as well. Dr. Parker's girlfriend, Selima, played by Sofía Vergara, is even more voluptuous, but her encounter with Fioravante only gets as far as a slinky tango.
Sharon Stone as Dr. Parker and Sofía Vergara as Selima
Internet grab
And then the story veers in a totally different direction. When the movie turns to the characters' home life, we see that while Fioravante lives alone in a tiny flat, Woody lives with a much younger African-American woman bartender named Othella (Othella?), played with restraint by Jill Scott, and her four children, who call Murray Uncle Mo. What? An old Jewish bookman just happens to live with a black family? No backstory is provided; that's modern life for you.

Murray with Othella's four children
Internet grab 
One of those children (who happens to wear glasses just like Woody's) reveals that his head itches and he thinks he has lice, again. To get the lice treated, Murray shepherds all four children from Manhattan over to Brooklyn to visit the lice lady. I thought this was an arbitrary plot development, but internet research reveals that some Orthodox women specialize in lice treatment, sometimes known as nit-picking.

The lice lady, Avigal, played delicately by French pop singer and actress Vanessa Paradis, is the widow of a rabbi of the Hasidic sect. She is the total opposite of the sensual Dr. Parker. She lives under the strict customs for widows. Her hair is always covered, she wears black, she is devout. She is the mother of six children, but she lives in a private bubble of sorrow.

Venessa Paradis as the lice lady, Avigal
This is an iPad shot off my computer screen
Is she a good prospect for the services of a gigolo? The worst. Does she have a lot of money to throw around? No. Something about her touches Murray. He looks into the depths of her loneliness, and suddenly he wants to change his ho, his creation, into a therapist. He returns to visit her later on his own, and employs infinite tact to suggest that she might look beyond her rabbi in seeking comfort, that she might seek out a healer. Then with the support of a flimsy folding table and a painfully thin yoga mat, Fioravante transforms himself into a massage therapist. When she first visits him, Avigal is so lonely that a mere caress of her bare back brings her to tears. The camera holds on her face while she dissolves into wracking sobs.

And now we have a love story. Once Avigal experiences emotional release, she begins to open up. She even ventures to connect with Fioravante on her own, not for sex, but once for a kosher meal and once for a walk in the park, like a regular romance, with sets and photography straight out of an Impressionist painting. The romance is intercut with gently funny scenes of Woody, that is, Murray, teaching the four black kids and the six Jewish kids to play baseball, taking care to mix the teams.

Why did the filmmaker sandwich these two very different stories together? It enabled him to show women at the opposite ends of the spectrum of sensuality, and thereby to indicate the universal need for passion, for contact, for tenderness—and for understanding—whether or not sex is part of the bargain.

It also enabled him to paint a positive picture of prostitution. Do you have a knee-jerk reaction that whores are damaged and calloused, greedy and manipulative? Do you assume they are beneath respect? Turturro posits that some sex workers are nice people who try to give a little more than sex. Murray coaches Fioravante something like this: "Don't think of it as a commercial venture. These women need to have a boost to their self-esteem. They need to feel good about themselves." Later, Avigal says that Fioravante "brings magic to the lonely."

Fioravante removes Avigal's wig
iPad shot from a computer screen
At first I thought the ending was a disappointing writer's trick. After Avigal decides to accept the attentions of the Hasidic fellow who is in love with her, Fioravante is so hurt that he decides to quit the game. That I would have accepted; it would be predictable: "Once a hooker discovers true love, they cannot go on selling sex." But you know what? Not only would that be trite, but it would present a negative view of prostitution, whereas Turturro wants to show respect for sex workers. So after Murray chats up a very attractive prospective client, Fioravante grins wryly to say that once again he is hooked; he is Murray's ho.

If The Interview is a buddy movie for the meathead mentality, Fading Gigolo may be called a buddy movie for intellectuals. John Turturro created the perfect role for his old buddy Woody Allen, and he made a film that is very much like Allen's work, complete with tribute to New York City, tasteful jazz score, and artfully composed shots. I could just see the two of them strolling around the city together, eating bagels, drinking Grey Goose, and trading funny bits for the script.

Turturro and Allen, buddies
Internet grab
This is my idea of a great movie. The themes are important but subtly stated. The script and editing are streamlined so that every word and every shot contribute to the whole.  The acting is expert and insightful. The film is beautiful to look at and beautiful to listen to. It's humorous, nostalgic, and profound. That's all I ask for.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Interview: A Comedy Offensive

It's no wonder the government of North Korea was offended by the political comedy The Interview. Filmmakers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg pulled out all the stops: butt jokes, dick jokes, pussy jokes and blatant bromance in frantic profusion, and all of it pointed straight at the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, like a comic missile. I have to wonder what Americans would say if the North Koreans could contrive a similarly outrageous satire targeting the U.S. President.

This movie poster and all photos are internet grabs.

And, furthermore, how did Rogen and Goldberg, who shared the film direction, and Dan Sterling, who wrote the script from an idea the three guys came up with together, arrive at such hatred for the North Koreans? Well, what better target for total comedy assault than a dictatorship where most of the people are starving?

The basic plot is that two entertainment journalists are conscripted by the CIA to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after they manage to book an interview with him. Just the plot line was enough to outrage the North Korean government. In June 2014 they threatened "merciless" action against the U.S. if the film were released. The distributor, Columbia Pictures delayed the release, and reportedly edited the film to make it more acceptable (it was even worse?). In November, the computers of Sony Pictures, parent company of Columbia Pictures, were hacked by a group that the FBI believed was authorized by the North Korean government. The hack enabled the terrorist group to leak a lot of sensitive information that was hurtful to Sony. The group also threatened terrorist attacks against cinemas that played The Interview. Sony succumbed and withdrew the movie in a dramatic gesture of apparent defeat.

It's ironic how dictatorial regimes play right into the hands of those who make fun of them. Nothing could have been better for the movie. The regime's repressive reactions exemplify perfectly the point the movie makes. Even President Obama took the movie as a symbol of freedom of speech. If we let them dictate what movies we can watch, what will they interfere with next? It's ironic that it was so easy to just side-step the whole issue. First they released the movie to independent movie cinemas, gathering in the hype-heightened revenue. Then they released it to cable and internet providers. We watched it on Xfinity OnDemand. For a mere $5.99 any American can say "FU" to the North Korean dictatorship, and specifically to Kim Jong-un. Naananana.

Hacking and controversy aside, is it a good movie? Is there anything for a refined old lady to enjoy?

Yes, actually, the movie had me laughing from the beginning. Everything about the plot, characters, and dialog is funny, not just the gross parts. The plot is clever and consistently worked-out. The pace is fast and the editing is tight.

The acting is fabulous. James Franco is hilarious as Dave Skylark, the air-headed host of a talk show featuring frivolous figures of pop culture. He is effeminate, silly, gushing, and shamelessly dependent on the buddy who produces his show, yet he lusts after a strong-willed woman and does her bidding.

James Franco as TV host Dave Skylark
Seth Rogen, who plays his producer, has a more subdued style, but his character's actions are even more outrageous, and he too is enslaved by lust for a smart and sexy woman.

Seth Rogen as Aaron Rapoport as producer of Skylark Tonight
Kim Jong-un, the current youthful dictator of North Korea, is played brilliantly by Randall Park; his mobile features trace every flicker of emotion.

Randall Park as Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader of North Korea
By the way, while the men are making asses of themselves, gorgeous, powerful women are the heroes in The Interview. On the U.S. side, the CIA operation is commanded by a woman, played by Lizzy Caplan, flashing cleavage and horn-rimmed glasses.

Lizzy Caplan as Agent Lacey
 On the North Korean side, a woman officer from within Kim Jong-un's inner circle, played with charming machismo by Diana Bang, betrays him and protects the bumbling spies. This is another way of sticking it to the male-dominated dictatorship of North Korea.

Diana Bang as Officer Sook
All this in-your-face satire is fitted within the framework of an action movie. Chase scenes and wild escapes, bizarre threats and exotic dangers occur rhythmically between the comedy skits and propel the story along. These action scenes give the movie a high energy level, high enough to propel this comedy missile straight into enemy territory.

Some say these guys were just out to make big bucks by being gross and creating controversy, but satirical material like this is a very effective weapon against dictatorship. The script makes the point that one of the props of Kim Jong-un's rule is the illusion of infallibility and affability that he creates with his own people. While he looks like an obvious jerk to Westerners, a large portion of the North Korean populace buy his act and revere him, and this is one reason why a revolutionary movement can't get started. Because of the controversy, the people of that benighted nation must be getting some exposure to the fact that their leader is the butt of international jokes, and perhaps this will make them examine their assumptions. Maybe a dumb movie can't do anything to bring down a repressive regime, but what better target for totally gross humor?